Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

Another day, another apocalyptic story in the Guardian

Coffee catastrophe beckons as climate change threatens arabica plant
Study warns that rising temperatures pose serious threat to global coffee market, potentially affecting livelihoods of small farmers and pushing up prices


Coffee, as we all now know, is grown by poor people. And, as we all know, climate change is worse for the poor. Never mind that environmentalists — who claim to care for the poor — hate coffee shops (unless they’re in Amsterdam), and hate global trade and hate the vehicles that global trade depends on, and hate even more the fuels that make advanced agriculture and global shipping possible…

Cultivation of the arabica coffee plant, staple of daily caffeine fixes and economic lifeline for millions of small farmers, is under threat from climate change as rising temperatures and new rainfall patterns limit the areas where it can be grown, researchers have warned.

This is surely a disaster.

With global temperatures forecast to increase by 2C-2.5C over the next few decades, a report predicts that some of the major coffee producing countries will suffer serious losses, reducing supplies and driving up prices.

2.5 degrees over the next few decades? Really? Over the course of my coffee-drinking career — i.e. my adult life — the globe has warmed by approximately no degrees centigrade. But let’s not worry about that right now. What exactly is the claim?

The joint study, published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) under the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), models the global suitability of arabica cultivation to see how production will be affected in 2050.

It predicts that Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Colombia – which between them produce 65% of the global market share of arabica – will find themselves experiencing severe losses unless steps are taken to change the genetics of the crops as well as the manner and areas in which it is grown.

Well, we can all agree that adaptation is a Good Thing, and is likely a good way of responding to climate change. But there’s adaptation and there’s adaptation. Most adaptation is a decision that can be taken at the level of the farm. The implication of the study, however, is that coffee growers will have to move ever upwards to cope with the changing climate, demanding the intervention of national and global carbon bureaucracies.

But is this true? What’s the evidence for it?

It doesn’t exist in the statistics relating to the production of coffee provided by the UN. Here is a chart showing coffee production in the countries named by the Guardian in the passage above, and for the world total.


World coffee production has doubled since 1980. Coffee production has tripled in Brazil since 1995, and output is less volatile. Vietnam has emerged as a coffee superpower in just two decades. Indonesia’s coffee production has shown slow, but steady and sure growth. This picture is hard to marry with the story that coffee production is getting harder. The only loser here is Columbia, whose output seemed to peak in the early 1990s. For this we turn to Wikipedia for the standard explanation

Regional climate change associated with global warming has caused Colombian coffee production to decline since 2006 from 12 million 132-pound bags, the standard measure, to 9 million bags in 2010. Average temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius between 1980 to 2010, with average precipitation increasing 25 percent in the last few years, disrupting the specific climatic requirements of the Coffea arabica bean.[13]

Well that’s one explanation for Colombia’s coffee production decline. But there are at least two others… Fair trade organisation, Equal Exchange offer this account:

The global coffee [price] crisis hit Colombia’s small producers hard. Twenty-three percent of producers were not meeting production costs in the nineteen nineties. The affect on producer families varied by region, but overall the crisis sent people further into poverty and debt. Malnutrition among small children in farm families went up significantly, while coffee production across the country fell 44% as farmers could no longer afford to harvest and process their crops. Many farmers were forced to migrate for work in urban areas leading to increased unemployment and more poverty.

The article is not without its own tendency to sustainabollocks. And this journal article offers a third perspective, but which it also attempts to link to climate change…

Coffee rust is a leaf disease caused by the fungus, Hemileia vastatrix. Coffee rust epidemics, with intensities higher than previously observed, have affected a number of countries including: Colombia, from 2008 to 2011; Central America and Mexico, in 2012–13; and Peru and Ecuador in 2013. There are many contributing factors to the onset of these epidemics e.g. the state of the economy, crop management decisions and the prevailing weather, and many resulting impacts e.g. on production, on farmers’ and labourers’ income and livelihood, and on food security. Production has been considerably reduced in Colombia (by 31 % on average during the epidemic years compared with 2007) and Central America (by 16 % in 2013 compared with 2011–12 and by 10 % in 2013–14 compared with 2012–13). These reductions have had direct impacts on the livelihoods of thousands of smallholders and harvesters. For these populations, particularly in Central America, coffee is often the only source of income used to buy food and supplies for the cultivation of basic grains. As a result, the coffee rust epidemic has had indirect impacts on food security. The main drivers of these epidemics are economic and meteorological. All the intense epidemics experienced during the last 37 years in Central America and Colombia were concurrent with low coffee profitability periods due to coffee price declines, as was the case in the 2012–13 Central American epidemic, or due to increases in input costs, as in the 2008–11 Colombian epidemics. Low profitability led to suboptimal coffee management, which resulted in increased plant vulnerability to pests and diseases. A common factor in the recent Colombian and Central American epidemics was a reduction in the diurnal thermal amplitude, with higher minimum/lower maximum temperatures (+0.1 °C/-0.5 °C on average during 2008–2011 compared to a low coffee rust incidence period, 1991–1994, in Chinchiná, Colombia; +0.9 °C/-1.2 °C on average in 2012 compared with prevailing climate, in 1224 farms from Guatemala). This likely decreased the latency period of the disease. These epidemics should be considered as a warning for the future, as they were enhanced by weather conditions consistent with climate change. Appropriate actions need to be taken in the near future to address this issue including: the development and establishment of resistant coffee cultivars; the creation of early warning systems; the design of crop management systems adapted to climate change and to pest and disease threats; and socio-economic solutions such as training and organisational strengthening.

But the link between climate change — whether it be natural or anthropogenic — and reduced coffee bean production is speculation. The research only suggests it as a ‘likely’ part-cause of an epidemic, given relatively modest changes in temperature extremes, which itself had a much more profound effect on production, which was again much more likely an economic consequence — low price and poverty. Let us not forget that greens are hostile to interventions which could have prevented the disease — pesticides — and campaign to abolish their use, and have persuaded Fair Trade organisations to make ‘sustainability’ a condition of trade. In other words, it is not implausible that the demands of ‘sustainability’ could have caused the very problem which its advocates now attribute to climate change.

A broader picture of climate change’s effect on coffee production can be gained by looking at each country’s yield.


Again, we can see that the story of environmental decline doesn’t fit with the statistics. We can see no signal corresponding to climate change in any country except Colombia, which we have an explanation for. Moreover, in the case of Vietnam, where we can see a dramatic shift in yield between the late 1990s and mid 2000s, which the environmentalist might be tempted to explain as the consequence of climate change. But he would be wrong. The producer price of coffee fell between 1997 and 2004, before rising again. As this graph of Colombian production statistics shows. (The data for producer prices in Vietnam do not exist over this time range).


Economics accounts for changes in production yield much better than climate. When the price is low, the yield is low.

The Guardian article continues, quoting one of the study’s authors…

“If you look at the countries that will lose out most, they’re countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, which have steep hills and volcanoes,” he said. “As you move up, there’s less and less area. But if you look at some South American or east African countries, you have plateaus and a lot of areas at higher altitudes, so they will lose much less.”

So do these countries show any sign of being vulnerable to climate change yet? Here are the production and yield stats for those countries.



We can see coffee production increase in Honduras and Nicaragua, and yield increase in Honduras, with wobbly increase for yield in Nicaragua. The case of El Salvador is very different. Coffee production fell, and has not recovered since 1979, and its yield has fallen since 1969. Is this the result of climate change?

No. In the cases of both Nicaragua and El Salvador, conflict much better explains changes in production statistics than climate change. In Nicaragua, civil war affects production through the 1980s, which was amplified by US sanctions, and the reduction in yield from the late 1990s through the mid 200s is explained by the lower prices that affected Vietnam. Civil war affected El Salvador through the 1980s, also, from which the El Salvadorian economy has not recovered .

The report‘s abstract reads as follows…

Regional studies have shown that climate change will affect climatic suitability for Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) within current regions of production. Increases in temperature and changes in precipitation patterns will decrease yield, reduce quality and increase pest and disease pressure. This is the first global study on the impact of climate change on suitability to grow Arabica coffee. We modeled the global distribution of Arabica coffee under changes in climatic suitability by 2050s as projected by 21 global circulation models. The results suggest decreased areas suitable for Arabica coffee in Mesoamerica at lower altitudes. In South America close to the equator higher elevations could benefit, but higher latitudes lose suitability. Coffee regions in Ethiopia and Kenya are projected to become more suitable but those in India and Vietnam to become less suitable. Globally, we predict decreases in climatic suitability at lower altitudes and high latitudes, which may shift production among the major regions that produce Arabica coffee.

This seems to me to reproduce the same old trick, of plugging in worst-case scenario projections into modelled assumptions of sensitivity of this-or-that to climate, to reveal, hey-presto, a sound prediction of what life will be like a few decades hence. Yet we can see that climate has had very little impact on agricultural production, if any negative impact at all. And we can see that economics plays a much bigger role in agricultural production than any environmental effect.

These kind of studies claim to want to protect the interests of producers. Yet their futures don’t seem to be at all dependent on the interventions of climate bureaucracies, if there is any lesson to be had from the past. The weather is simply the weather, whereas price volatility and conflict are the real enemies of farmers in poorer economies. Wealth allows for the proper management of crops, as well as adaptation to any kind of weather. The study does not appear to have attempted to isolate climate and its Nth-order effects from economic effects and conflict in its estimation of coffee-production’s sensitivity to climate. Why not?

This doesn’t exclude the possibility, of course, that dramatic shifts in climate could create problems for coffee producers. Of course it could. Yet even extreme weather, such as that which caused widespread damage in coffee-producing economies in the late 1990s as a result of El Nino don’t seem to have affected coffee production. In fact, the price of coffee fell following the 1997-8 El Nino, no doubt amplifying the consequences for recovery.

To link agricultural production and climate change in this way — as seems to be the greens’ want — is to make instrumental use of the plight of producers in poorer economies. It does not aim to intervene in any way that would improve their condition. The purpose is to inflate an already engorged bureaucracy and add to its powers. A genuine discussion about how to improve the conditions of producers in poorer economies would be about how best to allow a situation in which fewer farmers produced more goods, leaving more people to produce the machines and chemicals those wealthier farmers would use in their work, the other services they would use in their lives, and the books, films and music they would use in their leisure time.

But bloated, ambitious green bureaucracies and their academic organs like the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, which produced this report don’t want such lifestyles for poorer producers.

No single research institution working alone can address the critically important issues of global climate change, agriculture and food security. The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) will address the increasing challenge of global warming and declining food security on agricultural practices, policies and measures through a strategic collaboration between CGIAR and Future Earth.

Food security is not an ‘increasing challenge’. It is a challenge which has reduced dramatically over just the timespan of anthropogenic global warming. More people have more access to better quality food than ever before. Only in the minds of bureaucrats and climate impact models is the world a worse place than it ever has been. The reasons for this are obvious.

Greens Whinge About Consensus

The looming UK general election has so far been a contest of the lowest possible expectations. It is a difficult election to get excited about. But one group seems to feel especially hurt at being left out of the debate, with their favourite subject having taken a back seat to promises about lowering the cost of living, creating jobs and making tax-dodgers pay their fair share.

Over at Business Green — the on-line trade magazine for subsidy-junkies — we’re told that

Election campaign ‘failing to address’ green energy concerns

Said subsidy-junkies had polled themselves, and found them disillusioned with the substance of the election debates. The Renewable Energy Association (REA) asked its members if they ‘feel that the political parties are addressing the needs of the renewable energy {sic} during this election campaign’. 95% of 136 respondents said they did not. It seems that 1 in 20 turkeys voted for Christmas.

The Green Party was viewed as the party that would be ‘best for the renewable energy industry’ (29%) with the Liberal Democrats seen as the next best.

Members were less optimistic about the two parties most likely to form a government after the election. Nearly a fifth (18%) of respondents believed that the industry would be in the best hands under Labour, whereas the Conservatives received the support of 15%.

No doubt industries and the individuals within them have their favourites. But isn’t it odd for a particular industry to imagine itself and its favourite topics as deserving special status. There is much hand-wringing about large energy interests getting involved in politics — especially in the USA — but Business Green and the REA seem somewhat unashamed to admit that their own interests lie in particular election outcomes. When fossil fuel companies appear to expect special treatment from politics, green organisations and journalists are the very first to complain. And nobody can say that there hasn’t been emphasis on green energy — including the closure of many fossil fuel power plants, and much green legislation — in the UK over the last two parliamentary terms.

The green sector and green organisations have enjoyed much privilege. Yet Green Party and Climate Outreach & Information Network activist and part time academic psychologist, Adam Corner complained in the Guardian that

We need our leaders to speak out on climate change, not stay silent
The less that political, community and business leaders talk about climate change, the more scope there is for scepticism to emerge

There is plenty of stuff in the manifestos, Corner observed, but not in the debate.

So while there appears to be a robust political consensus around the importance of climate change, it is a silent consensus – which from the point of view of public engagement, may as well not be a consensus at all.

And out comes the cod psychology…

One important factor known to influence public opinion is whether elite groups (such as politicians and other public figures) give positive or negative cues on climate change. What our political leaders say about climate change matters – especially if they say nothing at all.

But perhaps one reason for this ‘silence’ is that political parties and their machines have decided that the public aren’t receptive to climate change, no matter what Corner’s research leads him to believe about ‘positive messaging’. After all, when people are more worried about jobs, the cost of living, the economy, health, and taxation, to bang on about climate change might look somewhat callous. Moreover, it risks giving a hostage to fortune, with UKIP being the only party willing to criticise the prevailing political consensus, and which has rapidly absorbed working and middle class voters alienated by the Labour and Conservative parties.

Even the Green Party has chosen to emphasise its social justice agenda rather than the environment. Its manifesto promises to ‘end austerity’ and create a million public service jobs paid for by a new ‘Robin Hood’ wealth tax and create a £10/hour minimum wage, protect the NHS from privatisation and increase spending on mental health, before it gets round to tackling climate change.

The climate simply hasn’t been the rousing chorus that environmentalists want it to be.

But another reason for the ‘silence’ is the fact of consensus politics creating a democratic deficit. To expose the political consensus to debate would be to challenge its very foundations, to test the public’s sympathy for it. This is simply too risky.

The cross party consensus on climate change was renewed for this election in a deal brokered by the Green Alliance.

Green Alliance was launched in 1979 with the aim ‘to ensure that the political priorities of the United Kingdom are determined within an ecological perspective’. Our name originally referred to the large group of eminent individuals from a wide range of professional spheres who were the founding members.

The Green Alliance is staffed, funded and partnered by all the usual suspects — a roll call of climate capitalists, green bureaucrats and activists NGOs — and surprisingly, by fossil fuel companies. Together, they worked to get the leaders of the three main political parties to pledge:

– To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2°C.
– To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act.
– To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.

So it doesn’t matter what the public thinks. The leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have already decided. So there is little point debating the detail. Yet Corner still wants debate:

As the election debates have shown, powerful leadership on climate change is not well served by quiet agreement. Nor is it a question of getting different leaders singing from the same song sheet. Some passionate disagreement – the antithesis of a silent consensus – would in many ways be preferable, and put climate change where it deserves to be: at the centre (not the periphery) of political debates.

Corner is himself reluctant to debate. Like many greens, he takes criticism of his ideas personally, rather than as abstract discussions of consequence. Much of his academic activism hides its politics behind the scientific consensus on climate change. One of the ideas he seems most resistant to discussing is the political nature of consensus — its political utility, and its corrosive effect on democracy. The cross-party consensus on climate has allowed its parties to establish political power and technocracies above the institutions of national democracy, and excused themselves from having to debate it. In the same way, the scientific consensus allows politicians to hide from debate and from criticism, to dismiss critics of political environmentalism as ‘deniers’, no matter the substance of their criticism. Adam Corner has got the consensus he has campaigned for.

Just two years ago, Corner complained that UKIP’s rise may undo the climate change consensus.

If political conservatives have so far not found environmental policies to their liking, then a priority for everyone who cares about climate change, whatever their political leaning, is to find a way of reconciling the values of the right with policy responses to climate change that are sustainable and just.

Otherwise – and the rise of UKIP suggests this may be closer than many assumed – the hard-won cross-party consensus on climate change in Britain, enshrined in the Climate Change Act, could be undone.

Forgetting environmentalism’s origins (in the UK at least) in the conservative camp led Corner to put the policy cart before the political horse. If so many conservatives aren’t natural environmentalists, and thus UKIP’s rise threatens the cross-party consensus, then we can see writ large an admission that the Conservative Party’s embrace of the climate issue alienates its core constituency. If, as Corner (And COIN) argues, green and conservative values can be reconciled, then the Conservative Party still remain divided from their base, having not yet persuaded them of the argument.

A more simpler explanation for what Corner observes, then, is that green values seem to thrive where parties suffer a disconnect from their constituencies, across the political spectrum. It may be the case (I have seen no evidence either way) that Labour and Liberal Democrat activists are more sympathetic to the climate cause than their counterparts in the Conservative Party, but this may reflect the expression of loyalty, obedience or discipline, rather than an reasoned ideological commitment. Moreover, none of these parties are enjoying historic levels of support after enumerating their new-found green principles, much less do they share them with the broader public. Corner’s desire to help the Conservative Party reconnect with natural conservatives with environmental issues aims to address a far more fundamental problem with British (And European) politics than it is able to grasp. It is as if the democratic deficit that afflicts all parties would be okay, or is not worthy of comment, just so long as some Tories think that climate change is an important issue. In this sense, then, environmentalists campaign for climate policy precisely in spite of the public’s interest, against it, to protect all three parties from their existential crisis — the yawning chasm between the political establishment and an indifferent public. Saving the planet from climate change is about saving the political establishment from the public.

BBC-journalist-turned-Greenpeace-activist, Damian Kahya notes the differences between US and UK politicians treatment of the climate issue, and promises to explain How we stopped talking about the climate this election — and why that’s a problem.

After using World Earth Day to warn about the impact the changing climate is already having on the US, [Obama] used his annual stand-up routine in front of White House journalists to rant against his “stupid, short-sighted, irresponsible” climate skeptic opponents who throw snowballs in the Senate to illustrate global warming isn’t happening.

As polarised and unpleasant that debate is — it’s hard not to wonder why it is so absent in the UK. After all, the UK is a flood prone island not that much less economically dependent on fossil fuels than the US.

Whilst Hillary Clinton and her opponents make climate central to their polarised campaigns, the issue appeared 3 times in Paxman’s battle for No.10 with Miliband and Cameron.

It is as if Greenpeace activists suddenly don’t like the consensus.

In fact the UK’s political discussion about climate has become ever more elite, as if the main principles are decided and it’s down to the geeks to sort out the details. But this is to miss the point of what climate means now.

It’s as if Greenpeace are complaining about the elite form of politics they have helped to create…


Here, a self-appointed Greenpeace activist sits in judgement of the Parliament below him.

And it is as if Greenpeace are now complaining about technocracy…

Climate politics in the UK remains dominated by “the science”. It is a debate about what the science was and what principles and targets we should adopt. It’s the sort of thing you can do a charity concert about — but it no longer engenders real conflict or emotion.

Gosh! It is as if Kahya had just read every blog post on this site. Yet there is no sense that Greenpeace were in any way responsible for the state of the debate… And yet a visit to the Climate Resistance archives yields this…

Back then, it was Dave on Greenpeace’s rooftops, unveiling his policies, which would end up paying the owners of domestic solar PV installations 5 times the market rate for electricity… to consume that electricity. Barking mad — but just the sort of thing Business Green, Corner and Greenpeace campaigned for. And when criticism came, they fell silent, or said the critics were ‘right wing’, ‘fossil-fuel funded’, or ‘deniers’. Kahya shows no signs of regret.

The debate, says the activist for the organisation that has done so much to shut down debate and to belittle criticism, should be about more than technical detail:

It’s about floods, storms or droughts and how to deal with them. About which coastlines, which industries and which companies will survive and which won’t; which technologies we develop and which economic models we use. The way our economy works is – after all – inherently tied up with the energy that drives it.

Most importantly it’s about the risks a changing climate poses to the poor and vulnerable and how to tackle that without undermining the economic livelihoods of those same people by driving up their bills or depriving them of power.

Kahya is wrong. What to do about floods, storms or droughts is a technical issue. But he is right that government picking winners is a political issue. But not one that can be justified on the basis of overweening crisis — the environmentalists preferred mode of argument. If Greenpeace wanted a debate that didn’t pretend that choosing winners and losers that didn’t descend to science, they have certainly fooled me. But that’s the point of asserting ‘the scientific consensus’ in political debates. To suggest that coastlines aren’t quite as perilous as green activists claim, that the government shouldn’t be picking winners, or that cheaper energy might be more helpful to poor people than mitigating climate change was to “deny science”, and to be victim of some horrific right wing ideology that would make Hitler’s crimes against humanity look like a summer picnic… Climate sceptics were inviting certain doom. And even lukewarmers were, on the green view, like some kind of Neville Chamberlain, clutching a piece of paper.

If this blog — now starting its NINTH year — has done nothing else, it has asked the likes of Greenpeace activists for debate about ‘the risks a changing climate poses to the poor and vulnerable and how to tackle that without undermining the economic livelihoods of those same people’. Yet Kahya complains about ‘silence’.

Politics, after all, is about power and choices. The UK’s silent consensus to talk about climate – at some later date – simply means those choices will be made without debate, as though huge changes to our infrastructure, buildings, equipment, behaviours and food system can be delivered by a few technocrats working under the radar. If forced to choose I’d rather someone showed up at Parliament and threw a snowball.

Environmentalists have their consensus and now they don’t like it. They turned up at Parliament, which agreed with them anyway, to stamp all over it, and to issue demands to it. Parliament did as it was told. And climate change became so unfashionable, so uncontroversial that nobody thought to challenge it. Anybody who dared to was harassed and smeared by politicians and NGO activists and on the pages of the Guardian. They were made the subject of bullshit psychology experiments. And now the Greenpeace Activist and the Green party activist say the same thing: wouldn’t it be better if the UK Parliament had a James Inhofe to chuck a few snowballs around.

There’s no pleasing environmentalists who forget the wisdom: be careful what you wish for.

Fortunes of Climate War

Over at Bishop Hill, Andrew Montford wonders,

Is there a competition on to see who can be the most revolting climate change activist at the moment?

It’s a good question, and it arises out of an article posted on Business Green (an on-line news and campaigning site for green capitalists) by its editor, James Murray. More about that in a moment. First, the background.

Yesterday, Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, chastised his counterpart, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, as the BBC reports

The Labour leader said the UK had repeated the same mistakes “in post-conflict planning” for Libya as were made in Iraq and the current refugee situation should have been anticipated.

This has rightly caused many to point out that it is the oppositions’ job to hold the government to account, but Miliband had not done so. And moreover, Miliband had given his support to the interventions in question, including the plan he now claims was absent, in 2011:

It is only now that many hundreds of lives have been lost in the Mediterranean Sea as people flee the chaos unleashed in the region in no small part by such incautious intervention, that Miliband wants to make it an election issue.

This was, said James Murray, “disgracefully confected outrage over Ed Miliband’s foreign policy speech”, as though Ed Miliband’s speech wasn’t the self-same ‘confected outrage’ and worse, confected outrage from a man who actively supported the intervention and failed to ask questions of the Government in the following four years, in spite of weekly opportunities to put such questions to the Prime Minister directly. And even worse, this criticism came from the leader of a party whose own record of poor judgement has left hundreds of thousands dead across the world under the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

But for Murray, the main message was not the internal and external factors which have produced conflict across the Middle East and North Africa and the deaths of refugees… It was climate change.

But there are other macro-trends at play here that are driving thousands of people to risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean, of which climate change is undoubtedly one.

The “climate change causes war” argument is the nexus of the two main preoccupations of risk- and security-obsessed politics, also known as the ‘politics of fear’. The surprising outcome of the politics of fear is that it produces more of what its agents claim to eliminate. The Bush-Blair doctrine of eliminating the risk of terrorists seems instead to have unleashed a horrific and savage Islamic movement that has capitalised on the chaos and power vacuum left in their wake. A similar paradox emerges from the arguments of those who want to eliminate the risk of climate change. As has been explained here, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say that incautious attempts to mitigate climate change risk increasing society’s vulnerability to the climate.

This is a point that is very hard to explain to climate zealots — let’s call them climate hawks — who are reluctant to admit criticism to the debate. Murry sets out his case…

We know that states tend to fail when they cannot feed themselves. We know that climate change increases the risk of disruption to food supplies in a region. We know that numerous societies throughout history have collapsed due to their failure to adapt to environmental change. We know that in 2007 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the war in Darfur as the world’s first climate change conflict. We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices. We know recent research has suggested climate change played a role in sparking the Syrian War that in turn has played such a big role in fuelling both the rise of ISIS and the humanitarian crisis off Europe’s southern coast.

But do we know any of this? Is it the case that ‘states fail when they cannot feed themselves’, or is it the case that food production and distribution becomes harder as states fail? The economist Amayata Sen, having witnessed the Bengal Famine, noted that often food shortage was less the cause of famine than the prevalent social conditions which beset its distribution — famines had occurred at times when food had been more abundant than when famine had been averted. No famine had occurred in a democracy, he observed. Ditto, is it the case that ‘numerous societies throughout history have collapsed due to their failure to adapt to environmental change’, or have they failed to adapt to climate change because they were collapsing for other reasons?

Should we take Kofi Annan’s word for it that Darfur was the world’s ‘first climate change conflict’? After all, it was Kofi Annan’s think tank, The Global Humanitarian Forum, which produced the 2008 report, The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, in which Anan claimed ‘Today, millions of people are already suffering because of climate change’. This suffering included 302,000 deaths per year from malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition attributed to climate change, claimed the report, out of 7,550,000 deaths from the same diseases. As has been pointed out on this blog ad nauseum, to emphasise the putative cause of 302,000 deaths — climate change — ignores the lower-order consequence of 25 times as many deaths: poverty. Annan’s callous moral calculus almost encourages us to believe that the 7 million — mostly infant — deaths are natural. Yet tackling poverty rather than climate change would have the effect of solving the problem of climate change, which now looks trivial.

Moreover, there is good research suggesting that conflict in Dafur had nothing to do with climate change.

In Climate not to blame for African civil wars, Halvard Buhaug argues,

Vocal actors within policy and practice contend that environmental variability and shocks, such as drought and prolonged heat waves, drive civil wars in Africa. Recently, a widely publicized scientific article appears to substantiate this claim. This paper investigates the empirical foundation for the claimed relationship in detail. Using a host of different model specifications and alternative measures of drought, heat, and civil war, the paper concludes that climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict. Instead, African civil wars can be explained by generic structural and contextual conditions: prevalent ethno-political exclusion, poor national economy, and the collapse of the Cold War system.

And do we know that ‘protests over soaring food prices’ were the spark that began the Arab Spring? The Gaurdian certainly thought so. But to the ‘leave it in the ground’ campaigners rarely stop to think about the effect on prices of abolishing fossil fuels, or subsidies for its consumers — the self-fulfilling prophecy. And we can moreover return to Sen, to point out that, even if there were apparent environmental causes for reduced harvest and thus higher prices (and so on to protests and conflict), the dominant issue was the tyrannies that failed to address the population’s needs, not the relative scarcity of food crops. Here is a graph showing wheat production in the region. (Data from UN FAOSTAT).


It is true that Syria suffered a drought in 2007-8, which can clearly be seen in the chart. And no doubt the internal displacement that is attributed to this drought changed conditions that would be significant later on. But is it enough to say that climate change was a factor in the conflict which developed several years later? It doesn’t seem to account for the political changes seen in Egypt. Nor in Tunisia.

But the green argument is more complex… There is a global dimension to food production — the market — as this research argued…

In 2011, winter drought in eastern China’s wheat-growing region had significant implications beyond the country’s borders. Potential crop failure due to drought led China to buy wheat on the international market and contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices; the resultant price spikes had a serious economic impact in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, where bread prices tripled. Egypt’s geography and population combine to create a dependency on imported wheat and a subsequent exposure to external commodity factors. Bread is the staple of the Egyptian diet, and for decades bread subsidies have been used to maintain social stability.

So let us bring China into the chart…


As we can see, there is no climate signal in the statistics for wheat production in China — unless we want to say that its increasing productivity is the consequence of climate change. This calls for closer inspection of the argument…

Potential crop failure due to drought led China to buy wheat on the international market and contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices”

Potential, not actual crop failure led to a policy decision, which pushed up prices. Here are those prices, from Index Mundi.


But there was no significant reduction in global wheat production that year, though it was slightly depressed from the previous year.


It is the environmentalists’ tendency, of course to see upward prices as a reflection of actual scarcity, the consequence of environmental degradation. But the figures rarely bear out this relationship. The rights and wrongs of the Chinese government’s anticipation of wheat shortage would no doubt produce debate between those of left and right persuasions about central planning and market failure. But meanwhile, the green steals a march on red and blue with vulgar economics. The climate debate descends to science.

Over at his blog, Thomas Fuller gives many reasons not to take at face value the claims that climate change contributed to the conflict in Syria. These include (in no order):

* Population growth
* Historic vulnerability to episodes of drought, including two years with zero precipitation 1870-71.
* Water diverted by Turkey
* No significant global trends in drought
* Deep discontent with the Syrian regime
* Previous droughts did not lead to conflict
* Other countries experiencing the drought did not descend to conflict
* The humanitarian crisis existed before the drought

And more. Read it.

The substance of what Murray says we “know” in fact turns out to be mere speculation. And highly contested speculation at that, with much criticism of the putative links between climate and conflict emerging from within the green camp itself. It is even contested by the IPCC

Climate variability or climate change are popularly reported to be significant causes of the mass killing in the Darfur region that began in 2003 […]All studies of this conflict agree that it is not possible to isolate any of these specific causes as being most influential […]. Most authors identify government practices as being far more influential drivers than climate variability noting also that similar changes in climate did not stimulate conflicts of the same magnitude in neighboring regions[…]

And it even warns that incautious attempts to mitigate climate change may themselves be the causes of conflict:

Chapter 12 (12.5.2) page 17.

Research is beginning to show that climate change mitigation and adaptation actions can increase the risk of armed conflict, as well as compound vulnerabilities in certain populations (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Adger and Barnett, 2009; Webersik, 2010; Fairhead et al., 2012; Marino and Ribot, 2012; Steinbruner et al., 2012). This is based on robust evidence that violent political struggles occur over the distribution of benefits from natural resources (Peluso and Watts, 2001). Hence, in circumstances where property rights and conflict management institutions are ineffective or illegitimate, efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change that change the distribution of access to resources have the potential to create and aggravate conflict.

“Violent conflict increases vulnerability to climate change (medium evidence, high agreement). Large-scale violent conflict harms assets that facilitate adaptation, including infrastructure, institutions, natural resources, social capital, and livelihood opportunities. [12.5, 19.2, 19.6]”

So climate change policy may increase the risk of conflict, and the conflict will increase people’s exposure to climate change.

The IPCC goes on…

Actions taken in response to climate change can aggravate existing significant inequalities or grievances over resources (Marino and Ribot, 2012), limit access to land and other resources required to maintain livelihoods, or otherwise undermine critical aspects of human security (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008, Fairhead et al., 2012). Maladaptation or greenhouse gas mitigation efforts at odds with local priorities and property rights may increase the risk of conflict in populations, particularly where institutions governing access to property are weak, or favour one group over another (Barnett and O’Neill, 2010; Butler and Gates, 2012, McEvoy and Wilder, 2012). Research on the rapid expansion of biofuels production includes studies connecting land grabbing, land dispossession, and social conflict (Molony and Smith, 2010; Borras et al., 2010; Dauverge and Neville, 2010; Vermeulen and Cotula, 2010). One study has identified possible links between increased biofuels production, food price spikes, and social instability such as riots (Johnstone and Mazo, 2011).

And on…

The provision of financial resources in payment for ecosystem services projects, such as are associated with Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), has the potential to stimulate conflict over resources and property rights (Melick, 2010). For example, efforts to ensure ‘REDD readiness’ in Tanzania (Beymer-Farris and Bassett, 2012; 2013; Burgess et al., 2013) and the Congo basin (Brown et al., 2011) have been contested, and placed communities in conflict with conservationists and governments. Eriksen and Lind (2009) similarly find that climate change adaptation interventions in Kenya have aggravated surrounding conflicts.


Climate change mitigation will increase demand for deployment of less carbon-intensive forms of energy, including hydropower some of which have historically resulted in social conflict and human insecurity (for example because of forced resettlement), and this is a basis for concern about increased violence and insecurity in the future (Conca, 2005; McDonald-Wilmsen et al., 2010; Sherbinin et al., 2011). Other research points to an increased use of nuclear power increasing the threat of nuclear proliferation or incidents of nuclear terrorism (Socolow and Glaser, 2009, Steinbruner et al., 2012). Climate policy responses also have the potential to reduce conflict in various ways, as explained further in Section 12.5.4.

And this adds more armour to the observation that environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recalling Sen’s maxim, the anti-democratic tendency of environmentalists — the view that democracy isn’t equal to the problem of climate change, and so institutions must be constructed above democratic control — would replicate the configuration of power that allowed tyrants and their indifference to their populations’ needs to reign.

Murray continues…

Most of all though, we know that even if climate change is not the primary factor behind the current tragedy this humanitarian disaster and the seemingly intractable geopolitical challenges, nationalist tendencies, and crushing grief it invokes is precisely the kind of disaster security analysts expect to see worsen in a world afflicted by escalating climate change.

Who are these security analysts? Are they the same analysts Ed Miliband consulted when he determined that UK intervention was ‘a feasible plan’, or perhaps the ones that devised the plan? Were they the same analysts that compiled and ‘sexed-up’ the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ that made the case for invading Iraq? Are these the same security analysts that didn’t anticipate the emergence of ISIS/ISIL? Are they the same analysts that presided over a decade and half of interventions across the world that have left thousands of young soldiers dead or seriously wounded, and killed hundreds of thousands of people that had nothing at all to do with terrorism, or fundamental interpretations of religion, and cost hundreds of $billions, if not $trillions?

I asked Murray to explain…

Which built on his earlier equivocation…

Murray’s logic appears to be that because the population of the ‘defence establishment’ aren’t your typical muesli-pushing Guardian readers, they have no obvious interest in climate change, and therefore can be counted as an authority. But this misconceive’s the sociology of the ‘climate establishment’ and the ascendency of environmentalism, as well as the development of risk-politics (discussed in depth in recent posts). The ascendency of the climate issue cannot be explained by the force of so many environmentalists asserting the issue over the political establishment. If it was thus, they were pushing at an open door. The climate issue was expedient to the political establishment and its agenda, much as the schedule of the War on Terror was established before dodgy dossiers were compiled. That’s not to say, of course, that climate change isn’t real and that there was no plot to bring down the World Trade Centre. But it is to say that politicians preoccupation with risk prefigures their response, and that the security agenda is in general prefigured by domestic politics more than by objective fact. Preoccupation with risk allows speculation to be passed of as fact in exactly the same way Murray’s concatenation of things we ‘know’ allowed him to claim that people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea is ‘what climate change looks like’.

That preoccupation with risk is expressed differently in arguments about climate and terror, but the logic is the same, and their nexus is interesting. Since the claims in currency are so contested, it would be prudent to understand the desire to naturalise complex things such as war than to take the claims at face value.

The desire to stuff complex social, political and economic phenomena into the terms of an encompassing ecological narrative overwhelms people who struggle to make sense of the world, and those who resist simpler or inconvenient explanations. And of course, those who would like to elevate themselves and the industries who finance operations like Business Green. The green story allows people selling renewable generators to appear to be saviours and planet-savers, not merely brokers of hardware. In the same way, presenting the War on Terror as a battle of civilisations — as latter day Churchills against their Islamic Hitler counterparts was a hollow morality play.

And this brings us back to Murray, who doesn’t understand how or why anyone could object to his article and its headline.

Murray claimed:

This is what climate crisis really means
The tragic deaths in the Mediterranean are precisely in line with the predictions of climate security analysts, without urgent action they could herald an era of mass migration and international tension

What Murray says is wrong in every respect. The deaths in the sea are not at all in line with security analysts’ predictions — else they would have counselled against the interventions. As IPCC AR5 report makes clear, ‘urgent action’ could well be a conflict risk factor in the same way that incautiously bombing other countries creates the risk of further conflict. The people struggling to reach Europe are escaping brutal regimes and conflict, not bad weather. And the ‘international tension’ already exists, was caused by regional conflict and external intervention.

The fact that people try to escape conflict and persecution needs no explanation. One only needs to see footage from any war to see precisely that refugees are one of the most predictable consequence of war. The cause for this that Murray chooses to emphasise is is weak, theoretical and highly contestable. Murray claims that ‘this is precisely the kind of extreme event climate security analysts from the Pentagon to the MoD to the world’s top insurance firms expect to see happen more often and with more intensity’. But this is owed to the increasing tendency to attempt to frame complex social and political phenomena in natural terms, not because of any developments in rational or scientific attempts to understand the world.

Never mind the abuses of fact and reason. Many find Murray’s words disgusting because his short-cut through the complexities of the world is so cheap. It makes instrumental use of other people’s suffering, to service a political agenda, and turns it into a marketing opportunity. It hides behind authorities like the ‘defence establishment’ and Kofi Annan, but flies in the face of empirical evidence and even the scientific consensus, to make claim that other people’s lives would be better — there would be no war — if only we’d buy solar panels from Business Green’s clients.


Repealing the Climate Change Act

I have a very short piece over at the Institute of Ideas (IOI) website, outlining the reasons for repealing the Climate Change Act. It is very short, so I won’t give much away here:

It might be easy to imagine that scepticism towards claims that we face catastrophic climate change would be the main reason anybody could object to the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA). But that would be a mistake.

It’s part of a series the IOI is running over the election period on the theme, ‘If I could repeal one law…‘ all of which are (and will be) worth checking out.

I was given a fairly strict word limit. So there’s plenty left out.

There are many ways the CCA could be criticised. It has always been defended on that tired old notion that the debate about climate policy divides on the fact of climate change, between scientists who claim ‘climate change is real’ and deniers who claim the opposite. But most of the argument has been about the effectiveness and feasibility of reducing CO2 intensity in this way — most famously Roger Pielke Jr and Bjorn Lomborg who have emphasised technology-up rather than policy-down solutions — and the costs of these policies. But I was more concerned with what form of politics the CCA represents.

That is to say that, whatever the facts of climate change, dealing with it has other political implications. For example, here is a clip I ran into recently from the 2011 BBC film, ‘Meet the Climate Sceptics’, which was notable for being something of a set-up and hatchet job on Christopher Monckton.

The main political implication of climate change is, according to Mayer Hillman, that democracy is inadequate. The only defence of democracy considered by the film maker, Rupert Murray, is that offered by the cartoonishly “right-wing” media and pundits — Monckton, Delingpole, Fox News, Alex Jones. Murray presents these arguments with very little depth — sceptics just want ice in their drinks, and to be free to shoot their guns and ride their motorcycles, and everyone else can get stuffed. It’s as if Mayer Hillman had no political agenda of his own.

But Hillman’s own website explains,

Our continuing uneconomic growth makes us complicit in a process that is triggering an ecological catastrophe for our children and generations beyond them. They will justifiably sit in judgment{sic} on our failure to have prevented its devastating consequences knowing that we chose to look the other way.

But whatever the scientific facts of climate change, and whatever the depth of the putative ‘right-wing’ counter-argument, or wherever you stand between left and right, there is more to this than a picture of gun-toting bikers and innocent scientists.

Is Hillman’s frustration with democracy really owed to the imperatives that are the necessary consequence of climate science’s discoveries? Or does his frustration precede the scientific facts of the argument? It strikes me that climate catastrophism is used in the service of political arguments, because the exhaustion of those who attach themselves to a particular view of how society should be organised leaves them unable to articulate a compelling argument for such change, be it left or right. That’s not to say Hillman is aware of this, such that we can say he intends to benefit from misleading people. On the contrary, I am sure his genuine convictions about the climate make him feel very important indeed. But it is to say that the facts of the matter are not so clear that we can take them, or his interpretation of them, at face value.

Ditto, can we take at face value, the UK Parliament’s response to climate change in the form of the CCA?

The CCA is not just a policy, it has broader political implications. It says something about the relationship, as policy-makers understand it, between the public and the state, and the responsibilities of government, which go beyond simple legislation. This has always been the point.

Hillman’s contempt for democracy is contempt for people. It says they are too stupid to understand the risks they are exposed to, and expose themselves and future generations to, and are therefore incapable of participating in the decisions that affect them. It is not a coincidence that this is the dominant mood in politics. And it is the background to the construction of the CCA. Consider this Newsweek article on Tony Blair, for example:


Blair had sharpened his ideas about leadership and the failings of democracy in the years since he left power. Democracy, he now concluded, faced an “efficacy challenge”. “Slow, bureaucratic and weak,” it was too often “failing its citizens” and “failing to deliver”. The price was grave, and apparent. Without effective action by democratic governments to stem it, volatility and uncertainty were spreading. Public fear and disillusionment was stoking the return of the far Right in Europe and the United States. “Suddenly, to some, Putinism – the cult of the strong leader who goes in the direction he pleases, seemingly contemptuous of opposition – has its appeal,” wrote Blair. “If we truly believe in democracy, the time has come to improve it.” Every few years, democracy was about the people’s vote. But most of the time, it was about their elected representatives harnessing the machinery of government to effect change on their behalf. Attempts to be a cipher for popular opinion Blair dismissed as “governing by Twitter”. Leaders had to lead.

Democracy isn’t “effective”, complains Blair, and he was a man concerned with getting things done, in spite of what everybody else thought ought to be done. Or not done, as the case was.

But ‘getting things done’ for Blair never meant rolling back bureaucracy as much as creating more of it. This is true for the forms of security from risk Blair was preoccupied with as it is true of the desire to save the planet from climate change. That is not to make equivalents of Islamic terrorists and carbon dioxide. But it is to suggest that what drove the response to terrorism and climate change are the same impulses: preoccupation with risk precedes the facts of the existence of both terrorism and global warming.

Blair’s solution is to get more billionaires and their flunkies together with decision-makers in more rooms more often. These set-ups achieve results, as Newsweek notes:

Government began millennia ago with kings and emperors. In time, their power was diluted by religious leaders, courtiers, generals, aristocrats and merchants. The past few centuries have witnessed the steady displacement of all of these by politicians: conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries and, most recently, elected centrists. And now, it seems, power is shifting again.

The World Economic Forum is our foremost example of the rise of a self-selected global elite. It is only one of thousands of new private institutes focused on public service around the world. Many are led by individuals. Blair is one.

Others include the billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros and his Open Society, which bolsters democracy by working through non-governmental activists in 100 countries. Another is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, founded by the Sudanese telecoms billionaire to work on African governance.

Then there is the $350-million Clinton Foundation, founded by a former President of the United States and a former Secretary of State, which works in health, education and applies a “business-oriented approach to fight climate change worldwide and to promote sustainable economic growth in Africa and Latin America”. Biggest of the new groups is the 15-year-old $41bn Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which takes the resources of the world’s richest man, and its second richest, Warren Buffett, and focuses them on health, mostly in poor parts of Asia and Africa.

And it goes on to ask…

If there are paradoxes in the Davos agenda – how did a non-governmental super-class manage to appropriate the subject of governance from government? how did the super-rich reserve inequality as a discussion for themselves? – what’s missing is a discussion on legitimacy. In a world increasingly run by the self-anointed, do we now make our CEOs and pop stars as accountable as our politicians – in case their good fortune one day convinces them to try to change the world? Should we choose our computers or movies according to the political beliefs of the bosses who make them? Can we trust a Gates, a Soros, a Blair?

To take the climate change issue at face value, then, is to ignore the pertinence of those questions. Blair’s troubled machinations about the shortcomings of democracy are like the poison that thinks of itself as the antidote to itself. What would he have been without terrorism? What would any Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change — Ed Miliband, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey — have been without climate change? Lightweight, self-serving political hacks.

Blair didn’t arrive in office on a wave of popular support for anything. He enjoyed a brief honeymoon period, because the other leading, but by then, deeply unpopular party had been in government for 18 years. Its political battles, formed in the dark days of the 1970s, won, the Tory party struggled to identify itself or its purpose, and it collapsed into its own internal chaos while the Labour party had rescued itself from its own malaise by cutting the party machine off from its traditional constituency, and reinvented its image. But the freshness lasted only a few years. Tony Blair was sceptical of democracy, not because of its inherent flaws, but because his ability to contribute to it was not equal to his desire for power. It is that simple. And that is the dynamic that forces so many politicians to hide behind ‘science’. Unable to achieve a convincing mandate from the public, political power searches for authority elsewhere. Power always has to justify itself, to itself, whether it be through ideas about Divine Right, or through invisible risks.

Politicians not standing for anything apart from slightly different forms of superficial niceness — Blair’s trademark was insincere modesty, forced emotion, estuarine twang and emphatic hand gestures — is the cause of the political malaise that Blair ponders. The rot that set in — the overreach of billionaires and their pet NGOs — is the disease that follows, not the remedy, to such political impotence and sterility. Blair epitomised the estrangement of government and ordinary life — professional, managerial politics — the evacuation of substance from politics. Billionaires and their entourages fill the vacuum.

Aside from the War on Terror, the rise of environmental politics as the most perfect expression of that form of politics. It aims to build political institutions above democratic control, comprised of expert panels, directed by non-governmental organisations, financed by faceless interests. Totally unaccountable to the public, and completely indifferent, if not entirely hostile to its interests, this compact is at the moment immune to criticism. Whether or not climate change is real, it protects politicians and the privileged against the public. Popular green wisdom has it that ‘global problems need global solutions’, but the fact is that global solutions need global problems. The real problem addressed by global solutions are domestic in origin: contemporary politicians’ inability to legitimise themselves and their agendas. The problems caused to political leaders’ by their distance from ordinary life appear to them as problems with the balance of gasses in the atmosphere.

In the weird world occupied by the Great and the Good, wars, poverty, famine, plague, pestilence and natural disasters can all be abolished. All we need to do is drive our cars less, recycle more, and put up some windmills, say these billionaires. Peace will break out, all over the globe. It is the politicians’ responsibility, then, not to respond to the wishes of the public, after public contests of ideas and values, but to act in spite of them — to tell people what they are entitled to. Whereas in earlier idealogical battles people fought for their interests as they understood them, today’s political leaders are more inclined to say that what people should expect is what is ‘sustainable’.

Never mind the physics of CO2 or its counter theories… Never mind the balance of positive and negative feedback mechanisms… Never mind estimates of “impacts”… Nor even the merits and demerits of wind turbines… The climate debate is at its core about the form of politics that established itself in the late 20th century. It is that movement which prefigures all cost-benefit analyses and debates about risk and the management of risk, be it risk from terrorism, climate change or drunken behaviour. After all, democracy has “failed” to stop people getting fat and drunk, too. Something “effective” must be done.

The cross-party consensus on climate change, renewed for the 2015 General Election, is not about about climate change. It re-cements the compact between the political establishment, businesses and private interests, and NGOs which brokered the deal. It promises to keep this relationship intact, and to protect it from the public and from democratic debate. No doubt all those organisations and their membership really believe in the fact of climate change. But if it didn’t exist, it would be some other issue which formed the putative object of an identical agreement.

The Climate Change Act, you will remember, came into being after coordination between NGOs and the government. The latter being unable to make the case to the public, Friends of the Earth were tasked with not only drafting much of the bill in both its 2005 and 2007 forms, but mobilising a charade of public support for it, involving the usual suspects in a ‘Web March’ — a virtual protest in which video clips of green activists and celebrities were uploaded to Youtube. There was no significant public demand for the legislation. There was no pressing crisis. There was no public debate about the need or terms of such a policy.

The Climate Change Act, then, is an instance of this compact between government, interests and organisations, reproduced as policy.

The Peer-Reviewed Dirt on Monbiot's Dirty New Scare Story

Just when you thought climate alarmism had passed its peak…

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

Says George Monbiot in today’s Guardian

War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Destroy the soil and we all starve

Monbiot’s tendency towards biblical levels of alarmism is on the record, of course. But this is new.

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

Our fate is being sealed, says the Graun’s miserablist-in-chief, by our mistreatment of mud — the stuff our crops depend on, and therefore we all depend on.

To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

Those wise men of nearly 4,000 years ago new something today’s seemingly chemical-happy farmers don’t…

The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

An orgy of soil destruction? Only 60 – 100 years of food left?

Those alarmist claims came to George via Reuters in the Scientific American, who reported on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) World Soil Day. Says’s the FAO,

Soils have been neglected for too long. We fail to connect soil with our food, water, climate, biodiversity and life. We must invert this tendency and take up some preserving and restoring actions. The World Soil Day campaign aims to connect people with soils and raise awareness on their critical importance in our lives.

But we should take such claims with a pinch of salt. Global bureaucracies, like disoriented Guardian hacks, need a scare story to elevate and legitimise themselves. FAO claims that a third of all agricultural soil in the world is ‘degraded’. But the website itself offers little guidance on what this measure actually means — if it means anything at all. Even searching Google for the terms “third of soil degraded” yields many results, but which refer only to FAO web pages and the headlines they have generated, and other organisations which seem equally keen to make this ambiguous metric the basis for new forms of governance.

The UK would serve as a good test of these claims. It is an advanced economy. It is relatively densely populated. It has strong regulatory frameworks, making it difficult to change the use of land and to use it in ways not approved by the state (or EU). The FAO’s own statistical database tells a different story to the one it tries to make…







In the case of each food crop, the yield per Ha has increased over the years. It is true that the area being farmed has diminished, but that is explained in fact by EU rules requiring set-aside for ecological reasons and to reduce the productivity of European farms, to avoid the vast surpluses that were created in the days of the EEC.

This increasing yield does not show us a picture of declining soil quality. Yet Monbiot assures us…

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.

Yet no such encroachment into nature has taken place in the UK. If anything, it is the green, protected areas of Britain’s landscapes which have grown into the land previously used by people.

But an even odder story emerges…

Shortly after I had tweeted the link to Monbiot’s article, Barry Woods got in touch to say he couldn’t work out what the basis for another of Monbiot’s claims was. Monbiot said,

Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.

This is small-is-beautiful mythology. The fanciful idea haunting Monbiot is that, if only we would all become smallholders, we would all live a more bountiful, wonderful world of endless leisure. Can it really be true that allotments are between 4 and 11 times as productive as industrial farming? It seems far fetched indeed. (For readers outside the UK, an allotment is a small area of land owned by local authorities, which is rented out in small parcels at very low cost to local residents.)

The link seemingly supporting George’s claim was to this article in the Journal of Applied Ecology, which claims that ‘Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture’. As we might expect, it is highly sceptical of ‘modern agriculture’, which the authors believe

… in seeking to maximize yields to meet growing global food demand, has caused loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) and compaction, impairing critical regulating and supporting ecosystem services upon which humans also depend.

And like Monbiot, they want us to be smallholders.

Own-growing makes an important contribution to food security in urban areas globally, but its effects on soil qualities that underpin ecosystem service provision are currently unknown.

Here is the passage which Monbiot borrows his claim from:

Comparison of Allotment and Agricultural Soils
The remarkable contrast in soil quality indicators (higher SOC, C : N, TN and lower BD) between allotments and arable fields reveals the effectiveness of management achieved by own-growers. Furthermore, it demonstrates the extent to which modern agricultural practices have degraded soil natural capital – which has profound implications for the loss of ecosystem service provision (Loveland & Webb 2003; Lal 2004), including reduced structural stability, water and nutrient holding capacity and impaired regulation of N mineralization and supply to plants (Quinton et al. 2010; Dungait et al. 2012). In terms of provisioning ecosystem services by own-growing in allotments, both the historical records of production during the world wars and more recent UK trials conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society and ‘Which?’ Magazine showed fruit and vegetable yields of 31–40 t ha−1 year−1 (Tomkins 2006), 4–11 times the productivity of the major agricultural crops in the Leicestershire region (DEFRA 2013). Importantly, depletion of SOC in conventional agricultural fields is now thought to be an important factor constraining productivity as many arable soils have suboptimal concentrations (Lal 2010).

This is like Chinese Whispers — a tendency of claims made by environmentalists is that the truth or significance of research is obscured by successive citations through the literature. Sure enough, rather than leading to any research which discovers that “allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers”, two studies produced figures which vary by between 4 and 11 times, allegedly. This is not a safe assumption — it does not compare like with like. It’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It is like comparing apples with paint.

The two, very different studies are the Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report, Agriculture in the English Regions 2012, 2nd Estimate and Tomkins, M. The Edible Urban Landscape: an assessment method for retro-fitting urban agriculture into an inner London test site. The latter is the author’s MSc Thesis completed at the University of East London, London, UK.

It is not clear how these two figures are achieved, prior to their comparison. The Defra report makes no mention of agricultural productivity in Leicestershire. Tomkins does, however, does offer us figures on page 44:

We can start to work out the yields of the allotment system by referring to experiments conducted in the 1970s by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) (Personal communication, appendix 2), and Which?Magazine (February 1975, Handyman special insert, p. 21).

According to a document entitled ‘Your garden plot – what is its value to you?’ (see appendix 2)

“During 1975 the Royal Horticultural Society maintained a 30 feet by 100 feet vegetable plot at Harlow Carr, with the aim of showing how vegetables for a family of 4 could be provided. The 3 year crop rotation was adopted and most of the work on the plot was carried out by the garden apprentice. Approximately 180 hours work went into the feature.”

But there are two important caveats here. Tomkins admits:

The first sowings were made on 9th March in the cold frame with the total volume of produce recorded until 22 November of the same year. The report states that at the end of the trial, there were “still plenty of winter crops, leeks, onions cabbage, kale, parsnips, broccoli and brussel sprouts…on the plot.”

The total of the produce is 876.1kg for 259 days of the growing season. This would be equal to 31.28 tonnes per hectare. The report, while stating the amount of labour required, does not give an indication of whether fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides were used in the experiment, although the NSALG “believe it was used in a similar manner to normal allotment gardening”.

First caveat… 180 hours of labour is equivalent to 22 days of work — nearly 10 per cent of a working year. And that much to allegedly feed a family.

Second caveat… The use of fertilizer and pesticide is not ruled out. My own (second-hand, anecdotal) understanding of allotment husbandry in the postwar period is that that generation of self-sufficiency enthusiasts adored chemicals.

We might also note that the Defra report covers the year 2012, whereas the Which?/RHS study is nearly forty years old. (Which? is a UK consumer affairs magazine, and the Royal Horticultural Society is an organisation for people with green fingers – hardly scientific research institutions).

Furthermore, although it would be impressive to see an allotment produce 876kg of food, even at 31.28 tonnes per hectare, given the average yields for UK production in the FAO database are 20 tonnes for vegetables, 13 tonnes for fruit, 40 tonnes for roots & tubers, the allotment holder seems not to compete with his industrial farming counterpart on productivity or cost. If farmers were only able to produce sufficient crops for 22 families per worker, they would likely go out of business. The small selection of crops produced in the RHS/Which? study would require 728,000 famers — before we’ve even thought about cereal, bread, dairy and meat production, whereas there are just half a million farm workers in the UK.

Monbiot loves to emphasise the importance of citing ones sources, and of making sure that such sources are trustworthy. But he does very little to investigate much beyond the superficial figures that such sources seem to produce. He takes for granted that what the FAO claim is the case. And he didn’t look too deeply into the claim in the J. of Applied Ecology, which mashed together non-existent figures from Defra, and a 1975 consumer magazine’s experiment with fertilizer retold through an inexpert, and highly political masters thesis.

The object lesson for Monbiot, then, is to understand the scientific claims he reproduces, not just parrot them before jumping to claims such as this:

This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.

One cannot take FAO campaigning at face value. Nor can we say that the Journal of Applied Ecology or Masters students at the University of East London (currently ranked 122nd out of 123 UK universities) have unburdened themselves of political motivations. As much as ecologists like to claim that their studies are science, ecology is also a normative science and a political movement. Students and researchers, too, have political motivations. It is not as easy to separate politics from science as Monbiot seems to imagine.

But a little research — an hour’s worth of investigation — puts statistical claims into perspective. The world is not running out of soil, and living out of allotments will not save us from non-doom. Unfortunately for Monbiot, though, looking more deeply at the organisations and science he trusts, and which he takes at face value, would deprive him of the alarming headlines that are his stock-in-trade.

A Decade of Lynas

Mark Lynas writes in the Guardian in the wake of the paper’s new climate campaign,

We must reclaim the climate change debate from the political extremes
Alarmists and deniers need to climb out of their parallel trenches, engage with the developing world and work together to end the crisis

The problem, says Lynas, is the emphasis given by the Guardian’s campaign to passages from Naomi Klein’s book.

The Guardian’s climate campaign is, in principle, very welcome. But it risks reinforcing this polarisation by leading with two extensive extracts from Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Climate vs Capitalism. Lefties will lap it up; others will see it as evidence that science has been appropriated as cover for an ideological project.

Klein’s book has been discussed previously on these pages. Briefly, though Klein professes to no technological understanding, she was moved by ‘complex systems researcher named Brad Werner’, who had given a presentation at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. According to Werner, his research aimed to answer the question “Is Earth F*cked?” by modelling society’s interactions with the biosphere, and the potential of various interventions. According to his model, the only hope for the world is for radical groups who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture” to come together in “protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups” to save the planet. Maths itself had spoken — anti-capitalist direct action could restore equilibrium to the world.

Says Lynas,

For Klein, whose career has always focused on fighting capitalism, climate change merely means we must renew that fight. It doesn’t seem to strike her as odd or fortuitous that this new “crisis”, which she admits she’s only lately discovered, should “change everything” for everyone else but merely reinforce her own decades-old ideological position. Her analysis of the problem is the same as for all the rest of today’s challenges – that it is the fault of multinational corporations, “market fundamentalism” and the “elites”, who in her view control the media and democratic politics.

Lynas is half right. Of course Klein reformulates her political project in the terms of the climate crisis — as many green anticapitalists have before her. As I have argued previously, whereas left movements in the past took authority for their project from weight of numbers of the people they promised to liberate from capitalism, the green left takes its authority from ‘science’. Whatever your sympathies with any left political idea or their possibilities, the difference between much traditional argument from the left and Klein’s call-to-action is the difference between a promise of a better world and a threat. Klein offers today’s radicals mere survival, not freedom. The revolutionary only guarantees liberation from catastrophe, not capitalism as such.

But Klein’s is not the only reformulation of political ideas under the green shadow of climate change. For example, ex-BBC journalist, Richard Black recently set up the dubiously-titled Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). (The ECIU is discussed here). The ECIU’s funding comes from the European Climate Foundation (ECF), the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The ECF’s funding comes largely from the living and dead super-wealthy and special interest via Climate Works (some more detail here). And Grantham — a super wealthy investment fund manager — funds a number of campaigns, and pronounced back in 2009 that “Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world”. And Tellus Mater’s mission statement is:

… to catalyze a shift to sustainable capitalism: to change the operating rules for capitalism so that finance can better fulfill{sic} it’s{sic} role in directing the flows of Financial Capital to production systems that preserve and enhance Natural Capital.

(Isn’t it amazing that such an outfit cannot afford a proof reader.)

So if ‘science has been appropriated [by the left] as cover for an ideological project’, according to Lynas, he should look more closely at the well-funded outfits like ECIU, Carbon Brief and others, which seem to be established to further ‘capitalist’ ideological objectives. He might see that the reformulation of ‘ideology’ is ubiquitous. But the climate debate, I argue, is all about ideological blind spots.

It’s worth remembering Lynas’s own struggles against ideology and how it has changed over the years. In 2004 he wrote,

I think inter-human squabbles about wealth distribution are now taking place within the context of a major destruction of the ecosystems which all of us depend on: rich, poor, black, white, homo sapiens or any other species. Therefore my argument is that the left-right political divide should no longer be the defining key priority. The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere. This doesn’t mean giving up the fight on behalf of the poor, but it does mean that one’s position on the environment is going to be the crucial political divide of the next century. And many left-wingers are very anti-environment. Some socialists retain the old technocratic mindset where they think everything can be engineered and humans are all-powerful. Many more leftish people are also too polite to mention over-population, which along with climate is probably the key environmental issue. I think that we should give just as much thought to other species of life, who will presumably continue to suffer even if human society eventually gets more egalitarian.

Just a decade ago, Lynas wanted to get the left, much of which was on his view, ‘anti-environment’, to relegate ‘the struggle for equity’ behind climate change, over-population and other species. Now he sees the climate issue dividing on left-right lines.

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

Reacting against this rather miserabilist and dystopian worldview, the political right has increasingly adopted an outright denialist position – attacking the science in a covert war against the political ideology it has been co-opted to serve. The reason half of Americans doubt the science on climate change isn’t because they are stupid or misled by the fossil fuels lobby, but because the global warming issue has now become as much as part of America’s culture wars as abortion or creationism.

But as we have seen. If the categories of left and right divide according to anti- and pro- capitalism, how to explain Grantham (and so many other green capitalists)? It frankly doesn’t work. The best we could say instead, is that some capitalists, largely dependent on the sectors in which they operate, have bought into the green agenda. Enron, perhaps being the most visible and earliest example, saw its own future in the regulation of carbon more than in the generation and trade of energy — the financialisation of the energy sector. Similarly, IT and high-tech firms have sought to emphasise their green credentials. This would seem to speak to a split between lightweight and heavy industry, leading in turn to a split on green-brown lines within capitalism as such. But in spite of this perception, which the green movement likes to milk heavily, the efforts to lobby or campaign against climate policies or fund climate scepticism are remarkably hard to find any evidence of, to compare to the $billions spend on the opposite case. Brown capitalism — the Brown Blob or ‘Black Fog‘ — is better characterised as acquiescent. The embryonic fracking industry in the UK, for example, not only concedes to the green movement, it tries to draw strength from it, claiming that shale gas could serve as a ‘bridging technology’ towards a ‘cleaner’ future. The coordinates of Lynas’s world seem very much out of kilter with the real world.

Lynas is a tad confused also, about the ‘culture wars’. What the culture wars represent is not the continuation of ideological struggle between left and right as such, but the dearth of political ideas with which to do battle. Lynas has the clue — Klein’s seemingly recent conversion to environmentalism. But he stops short of seeing it through.

Why does so much of the putative radical left now seek to identify itself with the climate change issue? We could take their arguments at face value, of course. But as even Lynas observes, whereas there were, in 2004, enough sufficiently ‘anti-environment’ leftists to scold them for it, there appears to be none worth speaking of today. There’s not really much left left, and what left there is left isn’t very left.

The argument offered here is that the reds turned green as the broad left movement disintegrated. Even by the 2000s, the left was a shadow if what it had been in previous decades. It had been depoliticised, and rather than emphasising alternatives to capitalism, became preoccupied with identity, tradition and social order — tropes that belonged to conservative thought in previous generations. But the major characteristic of this change is the collapse of its popular base. As the established left lost contact with its traditional base and its traditional philosophy, so it grew more hostile to the very masses it once promised to liberate. The phenomenon of Klein is the epitome of this hollowing out and collapse of left wing thought. The celebrated public intellectual doesn’t even understand the mathematical claims that seemingly make the case that ‘this changes everything’, whereas even yesterday’s Marxists were (or were supposed to be) fluent in Capital volume I, if not II and III. For Klein, who is more likely to be self consciously left on suburban bourgeois coffee tables than picked up and studied by factory workers (Urgh — factories! Urgh — workers!), and who is a celebrated ‘public intellectual’, it is sufficient that some authority instructs the revolution. The left’s corpse lies twitching.

But left-right politics is a game of two halves. Let’s not forget that the recent history of conservative or capitalist ideology is no less graceful a swansong. In 2011, Jeremy Grantham aimed:

… to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.

As I pointed out,

It is intensely irritating when the mega-rich lecture the rest of the world on its oh-so profligate ways. But the real issue here is that when men who command $hundreds of billions of capital express such a lack of confidence in capitalism, the putative political right has a problem. If (some) capitalists have lost faith in capitalism’s ability to produce increasing quantities of produce at decreasing costs, what is capitalism good for, as far as the man-in-the-street concerned? Why should he trust it, if the fabulously wealthy can only see dearth at the end of the tunnel? And why should he trust its institutions: banks, international trade agreements, government departments, contracts… and so on? Many who might identify with the Right may protest that Grantham is no capitalist, yet he is no socialist; his criticism is not of capital as such — he’s not seeking to abolish private property or dismantle capitalism — but an apology for it in an era (so he claims) of increasing scarcity. Reinventing Malthus, Grantham warns that ‘if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of’, before promising to return to offer ‘shorter-term views on the market and investment recommendations’. The end is nigh, but there’s plenty of opportunity to increase the value of your portfolio.

Grantham’s millennial anxiety reflects the failure of his own imagination. Like the Malthus he reinvents, he can not see what he has brought to the data which apparently tells him that the abundance produced throughout the era spanning the industrial revolution to the present is some kind of gift from nature. Divine providence. Capitalism doesn’t unleash human creative potential on this view; it merely digs stuff out of the ground and shifts it to where it is needed. It is this bleak outlook which is prior to the science. Grantham sees a ‘different, more constrained, world’, but isn’t it him that’s different, and constrained?

Grantham doesn’t speak for all capitalists, of course. But he does speak to the problem of capitalism losing its nerve, its moral authority and its promise in a way that mirrors the left’s. Losing his own authority, in the way that Klein does, Grantham searches for it by establishing his very own institute at the London School of Economics, supporting no lesser figures than Lord Stern and his cronies. In other words, the capitalist seeks the authority of academic scientists and researchers. The main difference between Klein and Grantham being, of course, Klein can’t quite summon up the cash that Grantham can, for her own institutions — which is perhaps why she prefers to ‘Occupy’.

The emphasis on climate change then, whether it hails from the left or right, is a search for authority. Essential to this search is a process of engendering a sense of terminal crisis, and the construction of saviours, to elevate institutional science as that authority. This makes the priorities of politics non-negotiable (unless we want to die), and the terms of politics if not incomprehensible, exclusive to an elite. Lynas words, ten years apart, ask to eschew normal politics, to peruse an ideological trajectory that is orthogonal to the old axis, to leave behind the battle over how respective interests might be reconciled for the interests of authority itself. But although he claims his statement…

Climate change is real, caused almost entirely by humans, and presents a potentially existential threat to human civilisation. Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.

… puts him at odds with ‘most people on either side of the climate debate’, he in fact alienates himself. And one of those parties he is now alienated from is institutional science. Take, for example, the words of soon-to-be-erstwhile President of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, in his attack on Nigel Lawson at the University of Melbourne

A feature of this controversy is that those that deny there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity. I think that is a crucial point, because these actions are likely to include measures which involve greater concerted world action, curtailing the freedoms of individuals, companies and nations, and curbing some kinds of industrial activity, potentially risking economic growth. These are all critical key issues about which we should be worried.

Paul Nurse argued that global warming might indeed necessitate ‘curtailing freedoms’ and ‘risking economic growth’. Science said so. And he said that this necessity is what drives objections to climate politics.

This is a major problem for Lynas, because claims from mainstream, scientific opinion seem to reflect at least in part what Klein is saying, meanwhile, green capitalists are on the case, securing their own ground.

One way out of this impasse, I would suggest to Lynas, is to admit to the political or ‘ideological’ aspects of the climate debate and even his own argument. What seems to be revealed by Nurse and his predecessors is that institutional science is overtly seeking more power for itself under the compact that has been formed under the logic of environmental alarmism. (See for examples, this discussion about Royal Society statements on climate change from 2010, and this post script from 2012). That is to say it is no more Nurse’s place to claim that science demands freedoms and wealth to be sacrificed for survival than it is Klein’s. Yet institutional science has not asked itself about the extent to which institutional science has become ‘ideological’, thus making climate politics climate change sciences’s a priori and its a posteriori.

But instead, Lynas simply heaps more science onto the problem:

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

It would appear that there is some sympathy between Lynas and Nurse, to the extent that both believe ‘ideology’ of one kind or another, drives resistance to what appears to be climate science. But Lynas’s own distaste for ‘ideology’ brings into question Nurse’s ideology, and consequently his own.

The recruitment of social psychologists into the debate, to patch up the inadequacies of climate science and of course, the highest ranking members of scientific academies, reveals a darker political aspect to the argument. If science is only accepted to the extent that it conforms to or confirms a political ‘ideology’, then why does this only ever apply to the sceptics, and to one or two inconvenient political radicals, like Klein? Why does it never seem to apply to Nurse? Or to Lynas?

Such self reflection on the ‘ideology’ of those anointed by Oxford University and the Royal Society — the establishment — of course, would undermine the entire argument. Cod psychology has never once successfully interrogated the ‘ideology’ of climate change sceptics, partly because it seems to be the case that its scientists even more gripped by the alarmist interpretation of climate science than even Lynas or Nurse, and partly because such activist-scientists barely make a secret of the fact that their ‘research’ is intended to frame the debate to particular ends. Psychologists entering the climate debate invariably over-estimate their own purchase on climate science, under-theorise ‘ideology’, and search in the main part for what they understand the subjects ‘ideology’ to consist of. This stems from the necessity of social psychologists measuring their studies’ participants responses against their own understanding of the scientific consensus, which is presumed to be correct, complete, and unimpeachable. The result is that the pay very little attention to the mechanics of the interaction between ‘ideology’ and ‘facts’.

If Lynas was hoping to undermine his own argument, he wouldn’t find anything more equal to this task than deference to social psychology. Climate change psychology is perhaps the most vivid example of politics — ‘ideology’ — having colonised science that it is possible to find since the days of the Soviet Union.

The point of social psychology’s recruitment, however, is not simply to undermine sceptics. It also has the virtue of differentiating the establishment from the hoi polloi it claims to serve. ‘Ideology’ is how the masses understand their own interests, and politics is (or was) how interests are bargained for. By diminishing the faculties of those who fall victim to ‘ideology’, the political establishment can elevate itself, in its own interests, hidden behind scientific authority. On the view Lynas offers, “ideology” is arbitrary — nothing more than subjective or relativised preferences — and contaminates a clear view of objective reality. But this view of human faculties is itself deeply ideological. It says that, humans not being capable of perceiving what is in their interests, and the world being such a dangerous, complicated place, political institutions need to exist above their reach.

But with Lynas, there is always something agree with…

Forget the political myths: here’s the hard reality. The emergence from poverty of the developing world is non-negotiable. Humanity will therefore double or triple energy consumption overall by 2050. Our challenge is to develop and deploy the technology to deliver this energy in as low-carbon a way as possible, probably using some combination of efficiency, renewables, next-generation nuclear and carbon capture. We need to pour vastly more resources into R&D, and put a significant international price on carbon.

Hear hear.

But the sting in the tail is still present in Lynas’s conclusion…

But to make any of this happen we will need to recapture the climate debate from the political extremes. We must then work to come up with inclusive proposals that can form the basis of a social consensus that must last decades if it is to have any meaningful effect on the climate change crisis that faces us.

The social consensus being sought is still a social consensus in which the job of deliberating the consensus is done away from the public. Lynas says he seeks an ‘inclusive’ solution, but ‘inclusiveness’ invariably means most people being equally excluded. The human condition precludes social consensus without the reconciliation of its contradictions in the public sphere. Everyone from left through right, Marx through to Hayek has imagined a world freed from politics, through various means and ends and justifications. But what appears to drive Lynas’s appeal, like most appeals to make climate the central organising principle of politics, is the inability to formulate a social consensus that consists of more than a promise of survival.

Lynas’s problem is deep. The energy required by the human race in 2050 is seen as an inherently problematic thing, which will be demanded, and will need to be provided, not as a positive thing. People are conceived of as technical ‘challenges’, rather than either opportunities or ends in themselves. But a society with sufficient energy, leaving aside the environmental problems it may cause for a moment, ought to be seen as a positive thing in its own right, which people should surely campaign for. The fact that even the green movement is itself so split — pro- and anti-capitalist, pro- and anti- technology, pro- and anti- humanity itself — should demonstrate to Lynas the scale of the task of uniting the entire world, never mind a nation, in a social consensus, never mind a treaty under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is well and truly beyond his abilities, or the abilities of climate science.

I don’t find Lynas’s views any less extreme than Klein’s. Klein at least recognises that the world divides into 99% and 1%, though she fancies herself to be in the larger part. Lynas, on the other hand, seems to want to put to rest the differences that persist, even within the green movement, to forsake arguing in our own interests because we don’t have sufficient faculties to understand what they are. To conceive of your own interests seems to be ‘extreme’. Lynas’s reformulation of politics, under threat of climate catastrophe, suits a narrow establishment which has, over the years, become more and more distant from its public. Climate change has come to the rescue of that political class, whether or not mainstream climate science has the better grasp of reality than its detractors. Untangling that science from the politics that has colonised it will be no more simple a task than uniting the world in a ‘social consensus’.

Not much has changed, then, since I reviewed Lynas’s book in 2011:

Never mind environmental science’s failures to produce proof of Gaia’s existence and failure to predict ecological Armageddon, we only need to look at environmentalism’s political failures to understand Lynas’s reformulation of environmentalism. On the street, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to become a mass movement. At the level of regional government, ideas about saving the planet by ‘thinking globally, acting locally’ have only antagonised relations between the public and officials while degrading local services. At the level of national government, the political establishment’s environmentalism only serves to reflect the gulf that exists between the public and themselves – their various planet-saving initiatives looking more and more like desperate and self-serving attempts to legitimise their functioning in an era of mass political disengagement. At the supranational level, environmentalism has failed to unite nations in fear of Gaia’s revenge.

The attempt to locate planetary boundaries is equally an attempt to locate boundaries for humanity – to put it in its place within a supposed natural order. And within that order is a design for political institutions that are not legitimised by the public contest of values and ideas, but by the claim that they are necessary for ‘saving the planet’ and ourselves. Environmentalism is an ugly political experiment. That experiment failed, but not simply because its material science was flawed. Just as it was environmentalism’s political failure that preceded Lynas’s revision of its scientific basis, environmentalism’s political idea – its ideology – precedes the science. Rewriting the science won’t make the experiment any more successful for Lynas than it was for Ehrlich.

Barry Gardiner's #TimeToAct2015 Photo Album

Yesterday saw the ‘Time To Act 2015’ protests in a number of cities throughout the world. The Huffington Post proudly announced ‘People’s Climate March In London Draws 5,000, Including Russell Brand And Naomi Klein‘.

Have you ever been to Central London on a Saturday afternoon? In a city of more than 8 million people, just 5,000 (0.0625% of the city’s population) is hardly a spectacle. To illustrate the point, here is one of London’s tourist attractions, the London Eye.

[image Wikipedia]

The Eye has 40 capsules, each with a capacity of 40 people, and takes half an hour to complete a trip (one revolution). The entire Time to Act march could be accommodated by the London Eye in little more than three revolutions in just over an hour and a half. As protests go, Time to Act was a demonstration of the lack of political movement behind climate action. It was a warm day. Yet people were more interested in London’s food, drink, shops, museums, galleries and big wheels than in ‘saving the planet’. It doesn’t even compare to the 1998 march by the Countryside Alliance to protest the banning of fox hunting, which drew 250,000. That’s right: more people seem to want to hunt foxes than save the planet from global warming.

One of the marchers was Labour MP for Brent North, and Ed Miliband’s Special Envoy for Climate Change & The Environment, Barry Gardiner, who some readers may remember threatened to sue me for calling him a liar on Twitter in 2012 after he repeated claims about subsidies for fossil energy he knew to be wrong. Gardiner’s tweets today were no less removed from reality:

Here is a selection from his Twitter timeline.

These glib tweets help to show that climate activists prefer to trade in image rather than reason and debate. But it was this image which particularly sticks in the throat.

The implication appears to be that climate change caused the condition that these children suffering — poverty — and that climate policies will rescue them, and children like them. The link between climate change and species is weak enough, but the link between climate change and poverty is weaker still. Who were these children? How had their lives been affected by climate change? How would climate policy make their lives better?

No answer from Gardiner, of course.

But the origins of the image were soon discovered by Vinny Burgoo

Gardiner had simply lifted the image from a stock photo library.

Corbis describe the image as follows.

Afghanistan – Daily Life – Brother and Sister in Kabul
Afghan girl holds her brother as they take a break from searching for items to recycle in Kabul.

So war, not climate change, in one of the poorest countries in the world explains the condition of the two young children.

It is heartbreaking to see such tiny children shoeless, filthy, and so utterly impoverished. And this makes Gardiner’s cynical exploitation of the image all the more revolting. It’s not merely that he wants to elicit an emotional response from you with it, he wants to make instrumental use of their image, regardless of how their condition arose and can be understood, for his own political ambitions. In other words, he has no sympathy for them whatsover, they are simply useful to him.

Imagine, if you can, that you became some victim of some event or other that left you in such a state: what clothes you had in tatters, covered in mud and dust, exhausted and utterly lost. Now imagine that somebody took a photograph of you, which was used to campaign for something that had nothing to do with the event that had left you in your most damaged, vulnerable, and helpless state. How would you feel? That’s how much sympathy Gardiner has for the children in the photograph.

Gardiner flicked through photo libraries and took images out of context, to use them in his self-serving political campaign. Is this mere, accident, thoughtless oversight, or does such casual disregard for careful argument say something deeper about politicians who seek to identify themselves by the climate issue?

If there really were an abundance of evidence that animals and poor people were vulnerable to climate change, it wouldn’t be necessary for Gardiner to search stock image libraries for content to underpin his glib sloganeering.

About 'Denying', 'Deniers', and 'Denial'

There has been some discussion about the D-word recently. The Science of Doom blog considered the historical implications of the word, and argues that its use in the climate debate trivialises the deaths of millions, and urged people to stop using it. Keith Kloor agreed, saying that the use of the word was needlessly ’emotionally and politically charged’ and inflammatory. Lastly, Richard Betts has a guest post at And Then There’s Physics’ blog, urging the readers there to ‘Label the behaviour, not the person‘, which fell on deaf ears. More about those articles shortly.

I have never been particularly upset by the epithet, ‘denier’, for the simple reason that it says much about the person who utters it than it says about the putative ‘denier’. I don’t know who made the observation that ‘once you give something a name, you don’t have to argue with it’ (I think it was Lenin), but it seems to me to explain the use of the word. Once you call someone a denier, you don’t have to explain what it is they have denied. Anti-deniers deny debate.

For instance, climate scientists who have slightly lower estimates of climate sensitivity than the IPCC are called ‘deniers’. I’m thinking especially of scientists like Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen here. Rather than looking at the arguments about how and why Lindzen and Michaels’ analyses come out at the lower end of the spectrum (and it is a spectrum) of estimates of warming, many have chosen to see the expression of denial as a phenomenon in need of explanation. The likes of Naomi Orkeskes have sought to chart a history of a conspiracy of deniers and their strategies. Others, like psychologists such as Jon Krosnick and Stephan Lewandowsky, have sought to establish the pathology of denial. Building on this, Researchers in Cardiff University have sold their insight into ‘denial’ to the government, to suggest strategies for confronting sceptics’ influence in the public sphere.

Climate advocates could have dealt with their interlocutors’ arguments in the same way that most academics deal with disagreement — by testing and developing better theories. But the climate debate is largely a battle of received wisdoms. And it is also a battle in which people are greatly invested, and which people have internalised. Rather than admitting controversy, or at least nuance, into the debate, it is much easier to explain away disagreement as the expression of moral deviance and conspiracies. Hence, the the climate debate is divided into two by the clumsiest interpretations of the ‘consensus’.

Just as in the battle of received wisdoms the scientific consensus is a consensus without an object, the entire point of the use of the word ‘denier’ is intended to avoid debate about what it is that is being denied. The consensus without an object meets denial without an object. This produces a remarkable paradox: you can know all about climate change denial without knowing anything about climate change science. As long as you know that ‘climate change is happening’, you’re equipped to comment on climate change as an expert, and to research the minds and motivations of anyone who disagrees or who is not interested. Anyone can sell themselves as a ‘climate change communicator’, no matter their actual grasp of climate science and its controversies.

This, I believe, is a far more interesting thing to observe than the claims and counter-claims about climate science. How is it possible, for example, for the likes of the UK’s most senior climate change bureaucrat to intervene in the debate in this way:

Lord Deban, PKA John Gummer, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) used to tweet about ‘deniers’, ‘delayers’ and ‘dismissers’. But he has apparently broadened his fight, to take on the ‘lukewarmers’.

But even when he was aiming his sights at ‘deniers’, Gummer never revealed who the ‘deniers’ were, much less what their arguments were. Similarly, here, we don’t learn who the ‘lukewarmers’ are, much less what their claims are, and much much less how these claims are wrong. For so much emphasis on science, the science is distinctly lacking in claims about ‘deniers’ and ‘lukewarmers’. The chair of the CCC — which sets the carbon budgets that the entire population will have to endure — should be in a position to inform us about the errors made in the debate. Instead, he prefers hollow invective.

Gummer has obviously finally got the memo: the continued use of the word ‘denier’, attached to arguments that never explain what is being denied, and who is denying, has been counter-productive. All it revealed was the intransigence of people who have responded to criticism of climate politics by hiding behind science, and by use of the word ‘denier’. The reality of denial as a phenomenon is nothing more the fantasy of climate alarmists, attached to conspiracy theories and cod social science. Many have now seen through it, and that those who were accused of denying were doing no such thing.

This brings us to the present discussions about ‘denial’.

The point made on the Science of Doom (which I refuse to turn into a TLA, for obvious reasons) blog is straightforward enough: ‘Understanding climate means understanding maths, physics and statistics. This is hard, very hard.’ So, reasons Doom,

The worst you could say is people who don’t accept ‘consensus climate science’ are likely finding basic – or advanced – thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and statistics a little difficult and might have misunderstood, or missed, a step somewhere.

The best you could say is with such a complex subject straddling so many different disciplines, they might be entitled to have a point.

But in spite of his granting that would-be deniers ‘might be entitled to have a point’, Doom’s injunction is ultimately unmoving. The problem divides in two, depending on the credence we give to the idea that the historical allusion is intended. Even if If Doom is right that the term ‘denier’ is used in the climate debate as a deliberate allusion to holocaust denial, it isn’t wrong merely because it defames the millions of people murdered by Nazis. It’s wrong in the present because of the bad faith of the people who use it, towards their opponents. It is as if it were okay to denigrate people in this way, as long as we are careful not to lump any of history’s victims in with the would-be ‘deniers’. In this case, the interesting thing is that it was necessary for so many people engaged in the debate, to eschew debate as such, and to put their counterparts in the lowest available moral category. If Doom’s greener critics are right that the word ‘denier’ only coincidentally makes equivalents of holocaust deniers and climate sceptics, then the problem remains that using the word only serves to belittle people people’s moral character, to avoid substantive debate — i.e. to not take seriously the object of denial.

In either case, and for any proportion of each, the point is much less about what is the best and worst thing you can say about ‘deniers’ than it is about what you can say about people who need to use the word.

Whatever it is called, ‘denial’ remains a category that Doom is still extremely reluctant to appear close to, as Maurizio Morabito notes at his blog,

… both SoD and Kloor find it necessary to go for brownie points, and clarify, clarify and clarify again that they ARE part of the Good Guys Brigade indeed, and have NO DOUBTS about the greenhouse effect, or the fact that increasing anthropogenic GHGs has been a significant contribution to rising temperatures of the last 100 years.

… The point being that on this basis, very little in fact separates the putative deniers from their counterparts. And perhaps this is the root of the problem. One reason for people reaching for such crude allusions to holocaust denial might be the moral certainty that is leant by the horror of WWII to the present. That is to say that it is hard to find the moral dimensions of an argument about possibly no more than +/- 0.5 degrees C. The easy thing to do is to compare people who go with the lower estimates to the perpetrators of the most grotesque acts in modern history. But this reaching for the most dramatic moral equivalent is a symptom of weak moral foundations, in fact. Hence, many people involved in the climate debate don’t make sophisticated moral arguments on points of principle, but in terms of totalising consequences: of millions of deaths, of catastrophic and extreme weather, and of the end of civilisation. In other words, the form of climate change alarmism that resorts to words like ‘denier’ might be the consequence of an exhausted moral framework, in desperate search for authority and legitimacy.

This brings us to Keith Kloor, who superficially agrees with Doom’s superficial criticism of the use of the word ‘denier’, and who tries much harder to sustain the polarisation of the debate without recourse to the D-word. For Kloor, the real test of sceptics’ actual scepticism is their treatment of claims about ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ (WTS). Kloor searches WattsUpWithThat and Bishop Hill for articles about WTS which are not, in his view, sufficiently critical, and declares all climate sceptic bloggers to be fake sceptics.

The articles in question are here: Bishop Hill, WUWT(1), WUWT(2). DO check them out.

What you will see is that the Bishop Hill article makes zero reference to WTS at all. In fact it refers to research about the acoustic effects of wind turbines, to which the wind sector had apparently conceded. Kloor had conflated the issue of noise with the issue of WTS. Yet Kloor says: ‘No skepticism whatsoever, no critical thinking skills exhibited by these “climate skeptics” about a claim that has as much scientific validity as the power lines-cause-cancer scare.’

This simply isn’t true. The effect of ‘excessive amplitude modulation’ is tangible. And although some people respond to noise differently and subjectively, it remains a fact that disturbing noises disturb, and that loss of sleep can produce many health effects. The attempt to group these effects into one syndrome may well have its flaws — I have argued this much myself, and suggested that it is a mistake to give much weight to WTS — but it is wrong to say that there is no evidence of the effects grouped under WTS as Kloor has. It is in fact as unscientific as Kloor suggests WTS is. So much for ‘critical thinking skills’, then.

The two articles at WUWT are guest posts. The first, by Mike Duchamp, does seem to be about WTS at first glance of the title. But actually reading the article — a prerequisite to ‘critical thinking skills, NB, Keith — reveals that the issue is not WTS, but the effects grouped under WTS:

These mega turbines are reported to be emitting more low frequency noise (LFN) than smaller models, and this causes more people to be affected, and over greater distances, by the usual symptoms of the Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS): insomnia, headaches, nausea, stress, poor ability to concentrate, irritability, etc, leading to poorer health and a reduced immunity to illness.

In other words, the issue is the regulation of noise emitted by turbines. As the article notes: ‘”Hardly anyone would accept 30 dB(A) in their homes at night”, wrote the Professor last month (2).’ For what it is worth, I think Duchamp would have put his argument better if he had simply said “Wind Turbine Noise affects more people than previously thought” rather than “Wind Turbine Syndrome affects more people than previously thought”. But this difference is hardly the difference between applying “zero critical thinking skills” and their full deployment.

The second WUWT, far from demonstrating a lack of ‘uncritical thinking skills’ in fact asks for more evidence. Kloor had said, “Of course, nothing is too far-fetched for Watts, who also published a post by someone claiming that horses in Spain were becoming deformed by wind farm noise”. But the author of the post, Ric Werme, made no such claim at all:

So, WUWT readers who actually know something about horses, have you heard of this case or similar cases at other farms with new wind turbines? Or, if you live near wind farms that are near farms with horses, cattle, etc, have they had problems like this?

This is just one study, involving one farm and not very many horses, clearly more research is warranted. If it’s confirmed, it would be interesting to know if other animals are susceptible to a similar problem.

So Kloor’s test of scepticism is pure and simple bullshit, and an example of exactly what he claims to be against.

I mention all this to illustrate why I don’t consider these “climate skeptics” to be true skeptics. They don’t think skeptically; they are captive to their ideologically-driven biases and it often shows. So if they are not “climate skeptics,” how do you characterize them and others who don’t think the earth is warming (or at least not at a worrisome rate)?

So Kloor, noting that the use of the word ‘denier’ is problematic, sees it as merely a semantic problem, not a problem requiring the self-reflection he demands of sceptics. He still wants there to be a way to divide sceptics from the rest of the world, to belittle and to impugn their moral character. And he wants a way of doing it precisely so that he can continue to avoid having to actually read their arguments below the headline. In the process of making his argument, Kloor, being keener to shout down rather than find out, reveals that the problem is not the lack of an adequate definition of ‘denial’ or climate scepticism, but himself and his need to polarise the debate, to divide into neat categories of good and bad, to avoid the argument and the need for debate altogether.

Richard Betts’s contribution is more straightforward. The use of the word ‘denial’ in the sense of denial of grief, illness or other loss has been lost by the use of the allusion to holocaust denial, says Betts. Moreover, labelling anyone with anything is a poor communications strategy, and can only inflame dialogue.

I think the whole climate conversation would be better off with the word ‘denier’ being dropped completely, and with ‘being in denial’ only being used very judiciously, when it really is appropriate.

Label the behaviour, not the person, and even then take care to do so only when justified.

There is much less to take issue with in Betts’ comments than in Doom and Kloor’s. The problem remains, though, that we have only an objection to the semantics or strategic sense in using the word ‘denier’, not an examination of its usage. Imagine if some racist were to be challenged for his use of racist epithets, not because of the racism he was expressing, but because the words he used weren’t an effective way of ‘communicating’. In fact, the racist communicates his racism very effectively — nobody is confused by it. And equivalently, nobody should be confused by the words ‘denier’, ‘denial’, ‘denying’ and ‘denialism’, whether or not they are an allusion to holocaust denial.

I would argue that racists and holocaust deniers should be free to speak. This is not out of sympathy for racists and holocaust deniers, but firstly on the principle of free speech in its own right, and a commitment to the more consequential understanding that the way to eliminate bad ideas like racism is to confront them, rather than lock them away. The use of the word ‘denial’ in the climate debate is an attempt to control and prevent debate. It is this motivation and the reasons for it that should be exposed. Anything less is merely word-play.

Those who are criticising their colleagues’ choice of language will face considerable resistance. The arguments which make use of words like ‘denier’ emerge from institutions which have been established firmly on the highly-polarised view of the debate. The example of John Gummer’s interventions is given above. And then there are the likes of Bob Ward, formerly of the Royal Society (with its own history of using the word, ‘denier’, and its presidents clumsy interventions), now at the Grantham Institute, attached to the London School of Economics. Ward’s campaign against critics of climate policies continues to take the form of complaints about the denial of climate science to editors and organisations in a position to censor or censure the putative ‘denier’. It is not enough for Ward, who believes he has challenged Richard Tol’s arguments with scientific facts, to use the muscle of his billionaire backer, the power of the academic institutions he is a member of, and his contacts in the press to disseminate the material he has produced; he seeks the humiliation of the author, the deletion of the articles written on the basis of the authors research, and for the intervention of the censor.

When the editor doesn’t step in, Ward complains about the censor…

Ward and Gummer should embarrass any advocate of climate change policy that believes in debate no matter how convinced they are of their own position. Ward and Gummer are symptoms of the extent to which a narrow interpretation of climate change and set of polices were allowed to dominate the public debate, and to police the public discussion. The institutions of climate change were established outside of the usual processes which steer the construction of public bodies — their rectitude given from the outset, as planet-savers, no need for debate, no need to test their legitimacy or purpose, no need for meaningful oversight. The institutions of environmentalism, in other words, have developed outside of any real culture of debate. So when confronted with criticism, those who either are not acquainted with debate, or otherwise feel entitled to be protected from it, can only escalate criticism to hostility.

These are origins of the word ‘denier’. It is not a mere accident of language, or slight on the memories of people murdered by the Nazi regime. The use of the word ‘denier’ is the result of a delinquent form of politics, as insidious as the organised political racism that allowed the officials of governments that espoused racist doctrines to use racist epithets. (Though that is not to make moral equivalents of racism and climate alarmism). It justifies itself in the same way: that the shortcomings of the group in question preclude it from self-government. Racism, too, had a ‘scientific’ justification, even in the C20th. But scientific justifications quickly turn into pejorative terms. ‘Deniers’ are impugned — if they are not simply invented — for their moral and intellectual shortcomings precisely for the preservation of a political class as it struggles to sustain its hold over the public sphere. The word ‘denier’ is in the official climate change lexicon. It is not street slang. It is not shorthand. It is precise. It is deliberate. Its use is intended to service a political agenda.

So, I find hand-wringing about what is the most effective word to use to refer to the out-group somewhat pointless. Even if urging people to cease may ameliorate some of the excesses of the non-existent debate, resistance to the word ‘denier’ means nothing if it does not amount to resistance to the predominant political ambition. Gummer can now include Betts in his hidden list of ‘lukewarmers’:

We are not 100% certain that climate change will definitely cause huge negative impacts, but there’s enough reason to think that there is a major risk.

Here, Betts explains the difference between questioning climate science and insisting that it is wrong. “if you’re questioning then I don’t have a problem with that” he says, “but if you are insisting, then I think you are dismissing large swathes of scientific research.” But Betts’s view is naive. In particular, he seems oblivious to the predominant mode of politics, which is centred around the concept of risk. (This is discussed in a recent post, which looked at comments from Gavin Schmidt, and the legacy of Ulrick Beck who developed the concept of Risk Society with Anthony Giddens).

Risk is a highly political concept, not simply the objective, statistical definition of threats. For instance, climate — stable or changing — is a risk to anyone until a level of wealth is achieved. A few milimeters of snow can bring the southern half of the United Kingdom to a standstill, but other parts of the world cope with as many meters of snowfall in a single event as parts of the UK receive in a year. To talk about risk independent of politics, is equivalent to talking about sight independent of eyes.

Betts believes that it is the job of science to enumerate and quantify those risks. But whatever the reality of climate change — the degree of change that will occur, the quantifiable risks that this will cause — a number of things prevent a clear view of what ‘science says’ about it. First, a great deal of political capital is invested in climate change. This is to say that, no matter how real climate change is, there was an intention, from the outset, of making the environment the ground for political authority — in particular supranational political bodies — outside of democratic oversight, on the logic of Risk Society. Second, an ideology which puts the environment at the centre of its outlook contaminates much research with a great deal of green a prioi. This in turn elevates highly deterministic theories about society and its dependence on natural processes, above ideas that emphasise human agency in response to trivial climate change, and the ability of politics-as-usual to respond to larger-order changes requiring government intervention. In other words, green ‘ideology’ amplifies the theoretical risks of a few degrees to a country as developed as the UK,to a threat to to its very survival. Third, science has not yet developed a way of excluding green ideology. And worse, as has been observed previously here, there is a difference between institutional science and science as a processes — the former having been entirely co-opted into climate politics, to the exclusion of the second. This is evidenced by Betts’ employers, for example, his research priorities, and of course the priorities of research funding being directed by bodies such as the Royal Society, and other organisations which have chosen to identify the climate as a priority. And let us not forget the researchers who, on the same brief and from the same coin, insist on pathologising scepticism.

Although it is good that Betts wants to urge people to tone down the rhetoric, I can’t help thinking that his naivity is as problematic as the thing he wants to address. He rightly says that suggesting that to question science is not to deny it. But he still draws a line in the sand: thou shall not insist. But if we insist that there is not ‘enough reason to think that there is a major risk’ (or that these risks are largely unquantified, theoretical and subjective), even as a consequence of interrogating the science, then we are now ‘denying’. We don’t seem to be allowed to form a judgement from the fruits of our questioning.

It is not enough to say there is a problem with using a word. The word has a history of its own, and a politics behind it.

Celebs, Comedians, Pop Stars… Climate Whores

While browsing Twitter the other day, I chanced upon this tweet from the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)…

Climate change brings out the weirdest things. The event seems to have been a joint venture between Prospect magazine and the DECC, and hosted by Channel 4 news anchor, Jon Snow (who you may remember got himself in a flap about whether the weather last year was caused by climate change). It is unsurprising that two of the speakers were Matthew Pencharz, a Senior Advisor on Environment & Energy to the Mayor of London and Dr Tom Counsell from the DECC. But what caught my eye was the presence of Shappi Khorsandi, who is a comedian, and Jay Rayner, who is the Guardian’s food critic.

So, the weirdness…

Prospect magazine claims to be ‘the leading magazine of ideas’…


But the magazine’s ‘energy’ section does not reveal much evidence of an editorial commitment to the idea of bringing ideas to the energy debate. There are a few articles, notably from DECC Secretary of State, Ed Davey, and his shadow, Caroline Flint. But given the un-diametric mutual opposition between Davey and Flint’s parties on the climate issue, this hardly counts as a battle of ideas, and barely even a disagreement about policy beyond the superficialities of inter-party politics. There is a short debate between the GWPF’s Benny Peiser and the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Shaun Spiers on the issue of fracking. Otherwise, Prospect magazine has run just a handful of articles on this topic over the last year, most of which seem to represent the orthodox position, espoused by the government, or its orthodox critics, such as Dieter Helm.

But the weirdest thing is… What do a comedian and a food critic have to say about energy policy? Why would a magazine, which sells itself on the virtues of exchanging ideas in the public realm, host an event, apparently on behalf of the government, unopposed, with a minister, two bureaucrats a comedian and a food critic?

Clearly an evening of discussion between a DECC minister and the London Mayor’s chief climate bureaucrat would be boring. Not even the events team at Prospect believed that their chin-stroking readers would drag themselves through the cold mid-January streets of London without some celebrity endorsement. DECC, for its part, take as condescending a view of the public as Prospect. Where the event needed a celebrity, DECC felt the campaign needed an animated video to arouse interest in London’s energy future.

I’m not going to say too much about Shappi Khorsandi — partly because there doesn’t appear to be much comment about the event itself, and because she doesn’t seem to have said very much in the past about either energy policy or climate change. Her stand-up act instead usually trades on her ethnicity and identity. But as I have suggested before here, the graveyard for one-time satirists is to ditch the standing-up for something for finger-wagging.

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.

The point about satire is worth repeating and updating. A comedian cannot do a gig with a Secretary of State and pretend to be a satirist. She is now on new territory.

Since I wrote that post, Russell Brand, who was mentioned in it, has become more famous for his shallow and incoherent revolutionary politics than his stand up comedy, having penned a book laying out his manifesto — ‘Revolution’ — with the help of plagiarist, fraudster and Wikipedia editor, Johan Hari. The cosy milieu of liberal-left comedians has expanded. And is now part of the political establishment, as much as Brand seemingly rails against it. There is Khorsandi, who appears with Davey, to urge Londoners to get with the coalition’s energy policy…

… And there is this, from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) — “an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative and creative practical solutions to today’s social challenges“…

Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change

Climate change is no laughing matter, but when all else fails, perhaps it’s time to take humour a bit more seriously?

With the climate clock ticking we witness a seemingly endless cycle of public talks, journalistic comment pieces and debates on old turf, mostly reinforcing what we already know and fear.

In a bid to generate a new dialogue that sparks enduring change, the RSA is embarking on a series of climate events with a difference, starting with a comedy night.

Humour has long been a powerful tool in the social-change arsenal, but is it powerful enough to help us break through the static on this colossal issue? Is ‘laughing-it-off’ just about evasion, or is it the key to transforming public perspective at scale, in time?

Working alongside BBC comedian and Sunday Assembly founder Pippa Evans, we have gathered a group of talented comics to inject fresh life and verve into what is often a technocratic debate.

Marcus Brigstocke, Steve Punt, The Showstoppers, Rob Auton, Jessica Fostekew, Holly Burn and Pappy’s will help us think through how to reimagine the climate challenge, loosely based on RSA’s Seven Dimensions of Climate Change framework.

Seven comedians tackle one of the seven dimensions each. And here’s the punchline: “The seven dimensions of climate change project seeks to turn a scientific fact into a social fact by clarifying what it really means to ‘act’ through the complementary and competing perspectives of Science, Behaviour, Technology, Culture, Law, Economy and Democracy.”

And this is the result:

As you will have discovered, it is funnier with the sound off. And it is probably even funnier if you don’t watch it at all. This event was far more painful than it was funny. I shall spare you a blow-by-blow account because there really isn’t much to say about the content other than to highlight its failure. The real issue here is what kind of thinking produced this phenomenon.

But let’s discuss briefly the first of the seven skits. Steve Punt is allegedly a satirist, and one of the team behind BBC Radio 4’s ongoing lefty satire, The Now Show, which is also home to pompous climate-change activist and comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, who also does a turn at the RSA event. Punt reads unconvincingly from a script, lampooning an imaginary climate change denier’s understanding of “so-called science”. The putative joke being that the denier takes issue with science itself.

Hilarious stuff. But in this hilarity, Punt, like so many before him, doesn’t get to the substance of the phenomenon of denial to satirise it. Sure, by being so stuffed full of the zombie canards, it’s a comedy version of what people like Punt and his colleague, Brigstocke imagine denial to be. But it is a reflection more of their own ignorance of the debate than their masterful understanding of it, so as to satirise it: the skill of satire. As such, the vulgar satire says more about the satirist than the object of it.

If this were just a ticketed event, or half an hour of BBC radio that one could easily switch off, it would not really be worthy of much comment. But the intention here was to ‘turn a scientific fact into a social fact’. Like some kind of social alchemy, the conceit is that getting famous comedians to tell jokes about the ‘them’ will encourage people to become one of ‘us’.

The presupposition here is rooted in the logic of political correctness. The predominantly middle-class, public school and Oxbridge alternative comedians that emerged in the 1980s, and became established in the 1990s ousted (from the broadcast media, at least, and latterly the circuits), a bawdier, rougher, tougher and working class tradition, which became deeply unfashionable and itself the object of much ridicule. The belief was that the crass homophobia and racial and sexual stereotypes that (on the emergent view) were the stock-in-trade of the stand-up comic in a working mens’ club transmitted values to the audience… Life imitates art. Accordingly, the RSA hoped to reproduce in the wider public the appropriate values and norms — social facts.

There are several problems, of course. The first being Punt’s own grasp of the science he wanted to turn into social fact, and the confusion about what it was he was satirising. As observed here at length, the comedian who dips into politics or campaigning risks proceeding from his ignorance, not his knowledge, and so invents what ‘science says’ (or what ‘so-called science says’) from merely his knowledge that a consensus exists. He improvises from the consensus without an object. Second, his skit was not funny. I don’t say it out of humbug; it really wasn’t funny. The audience barely laughs at all. Which is remarkable, because, and thirdly, this audience is already cemented into the RSA’s framework of ‘social facts’. Not being funny, Punt’s skit is worse than a bad or misleading lecture. Not being an event the wider public are at all interested in, it is a lecture to the choir. And the RSA being the establishment, with a mandate from the Queen, the whole event looks about as promising a prospect for satire as the government abandoning its daily business to instead mock comedians.

So the irony, which ought to be the subject of satire, is that the RSA — which exists by Royal Charter — has sought to engineer social values, but instead reveals that it has little grasp of the science or that the scientific facts aren’t as important to it as the control it seeks. And it reveals its own isolation from the minds in which it desires to reproduce its values.

The consequences for ‘satire’ then — and with apologies to Charlie, and for my French — can be summed up thus: Je Suis un Changement Climatique Denier. The point of the RSA comedy night was to shut down other opinions, to close down debate. The Great and the Good assembled at the RSA were there to giggle at deniers as proxies for the stupid and little people. And much of this performance self-consciously reflected on the inadequacies of democracy — in particular Marcus Brigstocke’s sketch. Said Brigstocke,

That’s the problem, isn’t it. The elitist slow nods that happen in rooms like this where people all gather somewhere nice, where clever people come together and go, hmmm. We are very off-putting. I mean, I’m not, I’m on the telly, but… We are, we’re fantastically off-putting. People find idiots much more appealing than us. You see. So I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know how you make it sexy. The breasts from page three have gone from The Sun today, maybe we replace them with some sustainability solutions. Obviously I don’t have a conclusion, I don’t have a solution to the issues that are thrown up by existing within a democracy where fundamentally everybody’s opinion on polling day is of equal value.

But it would be hard to satirise the smug, self-importance of the RSA and its funny men and women. Don’t be fooled by Brigstocke’s apparent self-awareness — he really does think that he is above the rest of the world — the idiots. There’s nothing that could be brought out of his act which would tell us anything new. He admits he is arrogant. He is aware of the problem caused by the gulf between the elite that has appointed itself to engineer and police public values. The only thing he doesn’t understand is the possibility that he and the audience have embraced climate change whereas the broader public aren’t interested, not because he and the RSA have a better grasp of the science than the people on the other side of that gulf, but because the gulf creates an existential problem for the elite. After all, the RSA was mandated to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce”… The elite now turns its back on such filthy things as enterprise and manufacture — so many consumer trinkets will destroy the planet. And it uses science and the arts to sneer at plebs, to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi. Having failed in its duty, it now problematises that failure, not as a consequence of its own divorce from reality and the public, but as a “social challenge”, to which it seeks to “innovative practical solutions”. Climate change rescues the RSA from its irrelevance. It gives it mission, importance. And it justifies the smug.

Comedy, then, isn’t just a fun night out any more. It is an instrument that social engineers believe they can use to get the public to conform. Never mind the melting ice caps and polar bears; climate change is killing jokes.

Even Adam Corner, the climate change activist-academic-psychologist anticipated the failure of the event.

But while online ridicule directed towards climate ‘deniers’ (generally portrayed as either too stupid to understand the science, or as conspiracy theorists) may appeal to the usual crowd, its hard to see how this kind of approach will breach the political divide. After all, the feeling of being laughed at by a sneering, left-leaning elite is not appealing. One notorious attempt by the 10:10 campaign and director Richard Curtis at ‘humorously’ marginalising opposition towards environmentalism backfired completely. It turns out that most people don’t find graphic depictions of children’s heads exploding all that hilarious after all…

But his own punchline equally fails to raise a chuckle…

What’s required is for climate change to seep into the fabric of satirical and humourous TV programming, in the same way that other ‘current affairs’ often provide the backdrop and context for creative output. Jokes ‘about’ climate change can in fact be ‘about’ any of the dozens of subjects – family disputes over energy bills, travel and tourism, or changing consumer habits – that are directly impacted by climate change.

Just as explaining a joke denies its humour, if comedy is instrumental, it ceases to be spontaneous. So Corner moves the climate change issue to the stage backdrop, in front of which people repeat gags about mothers-in-law who keep leaving the lights on.

Or here’s a better idea… A sitcom in which a BBC executive is trying to squeeze the subject of climate change into a sit-com he is commissioning. But the problem is, the sit-com isn’t very funny. And there’s the problem… It’s all so postmodern. Everyone is so self aware, self-conscious they are forced to explain the joke, and the purpose of making the joke, because not even jokes can be told for the sake of telling jokes — they have to have higher purpose, sanctioned by academic psychologists at the University of Cardiff who double-up as climate change activists for the Climate Outreach & Information Network and Guardian eco-bloggers. All spontaneity has been expunged from the schedule. Comedy, in the hands of people who take themselves far, far, far too seriously.

And it doesn’t stop at comedy, either. The desire to colonise the cultural sphere — and in particular popular culture — knows no limits. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Al Gore and Pharrall Williams declared that they would ‘literally’ have ‘humanity harmonised all at once’.

The unlikely combination of Pharrell Williams and Al Gore have announced what they hope to be the largest global campaign in history, in the form of a second round of Live Earth concerts to promote awareness of climate change. The concerts will take place across all seven continents – including Antarctica – on 18 June.

But the real satirists were quick off the mark…

Williams’ words aren’t just hypocrisy… This is eight-mile-high-in-a-private-jet green hypocrisy. It compares to Will.I.Am’s turning up to an Oxford conference on climate change in a helicopter. Said the rapper,

Climate change should be the thing that we are all worried and concerned about as humans on this planet, how we affect the planet, our consumption, and how we treat the place that we live in.

The Telegraph goes on to quote climate scientist Myles Allen, “The irony didn’t escape everybody. But he’s committed to the issues and he’s written songs about it.”

So just as we can ask what Shappi Khorsandi was doing at an event intended to get Londoners to ‘think’ about their energy supply, to the exclusion of any contrary ideas, we might wonder what Oxford — the second oldest University in the world — needed from Will.I.Am, and what Will.I.Am really needed to speak to Myles Allen about. Will Will.I.Am be rapping Myles Allen’s next paper? It sounds about as entertaining — not to say spontaneous — a gig as the RSA’s night of uninterrupted laughter.

The point, of course, is that celebrities, be they has-been comedians or stratospheric rappers, prostitute their status. And its not hard to work out what they’re whoring themselves out for

Celebrities and campaigners including Matt Damon, Bill Gates, Jody Williams and Malala Yousafzai are joining forces to launch an international campaign to persuade the planet’s leaders to make 2015 the defining year in the fight against world poverty and climate change.

The campaign action/2015 – which launches on Thursday backed by more than 1,000 organisations across 50 countries – is focused on securing successful outcomes for two pivotal UN summits, one in September on remodelled development goals, and the other in December in Paris on a new international agreement on climate change.

The harder question to answer is why. One answer might be that they believe in the causes they seem to champion. In which case, they really should butt out. Because what they reveal is not only their own ignorance of the ‘issues’ they want to ‘raise awareness’ of, but their rank hypocrisy.

But a more likely answer is that celebs have an insatiable need to be flattered. It must, after all, be hard to account for the luxury you enjoy when you sit in your private jet or in a helicopter. It’s not enough to say “I wrote a few songs and it made me $millions”. Self importance is incompatible with such ephemera as topical jokes and pop songs. There must be more to it, that justifies pop-singers and funny men’s sense of self-importance, that they can preach austerity from a jet-powered pulpit or rotary-winged lectern. It is the same with the fellows of the RSA as it is with the pop stars. A pathological narcissism in search of endless self-justification.

Advocating the Science Cake and Politicising it

The science-advocacy axis has provoked much fraught discussion over the years. Crudely put, there appear to be scientist, activists, and activist-scientists, and scientists-activists. The consensus appears to be that political advocacy and science should not be confused.

I half agree. But I think the ideal of keeping distance between the two is far more easy spoken about than acheived. My argument has been that scientists in the schema might not recognise the political nature of their work, or the presuppositions their work proceeds from. While it may be that the scientific process is intended to exclude the influence of human subjectivity, to discover things as they are independently of our preconceptions, merely instituting science does not preclude such effects. In fact, where science is an institution, it may become more vulnerable to political effects, for obvious reasons, especially in the following case observed by Andrew Montford:

You can imagine someone explaining that they believed in small government and that they had therefore decided to study the cost of subsidies in the renewables industry. The pathological hatred of such views among most members of the academy hardly needs to be mentioned, so while the dismiss/deconstruct options would still be available for readers of such a study, the chances are that this would result in ostracisation, discrimination and ultimately the end of the particular researcher’s career.

We don’t need to search far and wide to discover this phenomenon at the very top of the UK’s scientific institutions. The Royal Society, given the climate brief (in particular) by Prime Ministers, has abandoned the principle of its motto, to seek a greater role for ‘science’ in society, and in particular in policy-making. Now that scientists are recruited into the business of social organisation, there more at stake than the discovery of the material world. Interlocutors threaten to upset the course to discover the optimal administration of public life… Hence the ire of the Royal Society’s presidents past and present. More on that shortly. The point for now being that the world’s oldest scientific academy took a position in the climate debate, effectively issuing a memo to all scientific institutions that certain views are not to be tolerated.

Andrew Montford’s observation comes in response to an article by Gavin Schmidt, in which he apparently shows more reflection on the problems of science and advocacy than I would have expected, given his robust statements about ‘deniers’, and his refusal to debate with more sceptical climate scientists in the past, and his impatience with his scientific critics, to the delight of climate activists.

Whereas he claimed in 2009 that ‘I don’t advocate for political solutions. If I do advocate for something, my advocacy is focused on having more intelligent discussions’, Schmidt now argues,

Despite this careful distinction between advocacy and facts, the term “advocate” is regularly used pejoratively in scientific circles and is frequently associated with the cherry-picking of science to support a preconceived idea. In order to avoid these connotations, scientists often go to great lengths to deny being advocates for specific policies. However, it is almost always the case that a scientist speaking in public is in fact advocating for something—deeper public understanding of the science, more research funding, a more informed public discourse, awareness, and, yes, sometimes for specific policy action. Each of these examples is a reflection of both a scientific background and a set of values that, for instance, might prize an informed populace or continued research employment. It is most often when addressing a group with a shared set of values that scientists are the least aware that their call for something that “should” happen is still advocacy.

In my view, it is impossible to divorce public communication from advocacy, and scientists should not even try. Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace the terminology and, in so doing, define clearly what our own values are and exactly what we are advocating for.

So what is Gavin advocating for?

My exhortations here are (of course) also advocacy, and I would be remiss in not expounding on my own values and their relevance to this topic. I have a strong belief (or, perhaps, hope) that an informed democracy is more likely to make good decisions than one in which ignorance and tribalism are the dominant factors. I don’t believe that scientists themselves are in any special position when it comes to making decisions, but I do believe that their expertise must be an input into the decision-making process. The ability of climate science to probe and answer questions about the Earth system, the changes it has undergone, and the potential for change in the future has been (in my opinion) very successful in exploring the scope and limits of climate system predictability. There are many complexities and uncertainties, to be sure, but also many fundamental features that are as well established as any textbook science.

At face value, Gavin might as well advocate for Motherhood and Apple Pie. Though there is a question here about whether he advocates ‘informed democracy’ as some kind of qualified democracy, rather than the somewhat more mundane, ‘wouldn’t it be very nice if nobody was ignorant’.

What I would have preferred from Gavin is not this hollow secular piety, equivalent to nothing more than ‘I advocate science’ — everyone says that, and the claim that climate advocates are merely ‘speaking up for science’ is nowt new — but rather an attempt to enumerate and expand on those values.

For example, in the game of musical chairs he played with his climate science counterpart Roy Spencer on the Stossel show, linked to above, Gavin made the following claim:

Schmidt: What we’ve been doing in the last 150 years is we’ve been increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere — over 40% in terms of CO2, we’ve more than doubled the amount of methane, which is another greenhouse gas, and the signatures of those changes are very very clear, all the way through the system.

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

Schmidt: We have built a society — an agricultural system and cities and everything we do based on assumptions that basically the climate is not going to change. The fact that we have so much infrastructure right near the shore is because we didn’t expect sea level to rise. The damage that we had from Hurricane Sandy was increased because sea level has increased by 10-12 inches in this area…

The dangers of attributing sea level rise and Hurricane Sandy to global warming to one side, it is these claims much more than his ‘science advocacy’ which reveal Gavin’s values. (And it is a shame that Stossel cut him off at this point, to concentrate on the claims which some environmentalists, but not Gavin, have made).

Gavin’s view, put simply, is that there is some equivalence of climate’s sensitivity to CO2 and society’s sensitivity to climate.

I visited New York in the aftermath of Sandy, and what struck me was that it had put in place a remarkable, and visible recovery from both that storm, and the 9-11 attacks. Mobile generators and pumps were on the scene. And an incredible building has been put in the place of the World Trade Centre. However, talking to New Yorkers, the recovery from Sandy had not yet reached the poorer parts of the city. New York is well and truly capable of recovery — more capable than it was 150 years ago, notwithstanding that the benefits of that wealth do not reach all that need it. The rights and wrongs of that is not a question for science.

It may well be true that New York may have been slightly more vulnerable to inundation because of sea level rise, and that some of that sea level rise may be the consequence of anthropogenic global warming. But the implication — Gavin’s values — that New York is more vulnerable to nature’s whims or vengeance now than at any point in its history is not plausible.

New York is also capable of defence. It would not have taken much might to defend against the storm. And it would not take much to protect New York against another 10-12 inches, as it would need to anyway, like London or Amsterdam have needed to, and will need to, and New Orleans should have been. It is Gavin’s assumption here that society, or cities, have been organised around the principle of an unchanging environment, and that a stable climate can ever be achieved. There is an assumption that cities would not ever, given a stable climate, be assaulted by the waves.

Gavin’s climate sociology is simply wrong. Society has never been built on the assumption of climate stability. No good farmer lacks the knowledge that drought, famine, are possibilities and that climate varies. No forward-thinking architect ever imagined that the weather could not get the better of his building. Consequently, people improved their skills and climate takes fewer and fewer lives, and society founded on industrial agriculture produces more and more, to feed more and more people, who live longer, healthier and more wealthy lives — all in spite of climate change.

It is this low estimation of society — that it is dependent on the environment, rather than resources of its own construction — that is the value which should be reflected on. That’s not necessarily something I think Gavin should be aware of when he declares the causes he advocates for. But he will not hear it unless it is pointed out to him in debate, along with the observation that his deterministic, and highly ideological understanding of society’s relationship with the environment is a view that dominates the scientific establishment, the academy and global politics (especially in Europe).

And Gavin nearly gets it:

Scientists and philosophers have long distinguished between descriptions of what “is” (derived from scientific investigations of the real world), what “ought” to be (based on one’s value system), and suggestions for what one “should” do in the face of this knowledge (Hume, 1740; Schneider, 1996).

Schneider’s talk is unfortunately no longer available, though, he, like Gavin, strikes me as an odd person to be pontificating on the is-ought fallacy. Rather, I think they have stumbled across this obstacle, and are trying to revise a way around it, in much as the way Gavin is avoiding admitting that he is advocating a political cause, by claiming that he is only advocating science.

Here is one such instance of is-ought thinking which popped up today… Roger Harrabin is back, telling the winter that it is misbehaving…

Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day.

They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom.

It raises further questions about the effects of climate change during the UK’s warmest year on record.

There may be many reasons why the world does not act in accordance with textbooks. And climate change may be one of them. But to immediately frame the phenomenon as a consequence of climate change reveals the extent to which climate change and its presuppositions has become an encompassing narrative, as if an early bloom could not happen in an uncontaminated world, and was a harbinger, as deadly as Hurricane Sandy. Environmental correspondence are obsessed with early and late winters.

Back to Gavin. Anyone invoking the is-ought fallacy should ought to think more carefully about why it happens, rather than drive a train through it. What causes people to read is as ought?

And this is why I find these epiphanies so unconvincing — the author fails to reflect on the epiphany itself. For instance, as I pointed out in my review of Mark Lynas’s book, The God Species, the book, and his newly-found support for GM technology and nuclear power did not reveal anything about what drove the more orthodox-green Lynas.

Lynas’s transformation shows few signs of self-reflection. Yet this would surely be the most interesting thing he could discuss. Why did ‘denial’ provoke such incomprehensible rage to the younger Lynas? And now that he finds himself accused of it, why is he not more cautious about the word ‘denier’, which he still uses with abandon? Instead, he puts his past eco-zeal down to mere ‘ideology’. Ideology it may have been, but there is no discussion about its character, its origins and context, or how he came to be vulnerable to it. His metamorphosis from long-time anti-GM campaigner to advocate came about, he explains, after he read some scientific literature in 2008. Lynas’s conceit is that he has freed himself from ideology simply by reading ‘the science’.

But doesn’t every green campaigner believe himself to be armed with the science against the dark forces of ideology? […] Clearly, the coordinates of the environmental debate are not easily determined as ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, and a deeper reflection on both concepts is necessary to understand it. Lynas, in spite of his claim that ‘science’ has helped him overcome ‘ideology’, fails to provide that insight.

And Gavin has much of his former self to reflect on, too. When he declared back in 2009 that he was not an advocate, he also explained his views on ‘noise’ in the climate debate:

This leads to maybe the final question that I think about, which is, “how do you increase the signal-to-noise ratio in communication about complex issues?” We battle with this on a small scale in our blog’s comment thread. In un-moderated forums about climate change, it just devolves immediately into name-calling. It becomes very difficult discuss science, to talk about what aerosols do to the hydrological.

The problem is that the noise serves various people’s purposes. It’s not that the noise is accidental. When it comes to climate, a lot of the noise is deliberate because if there’s an increase of noise you don’t hear the signal, and if you don’t hear the signal you can’t do anything about it. Increasing the level of noise is a deliberate political tactic. It’s been used by all segments of the political spectrum for different problems. With the climate issue in the US, it is used by a particular segment of the political community in ways that is personally distressing. How do you deal with that? That is a question, which I am still asking myself.

‘Noise’ is the price you pay for science and for unqualified democracy (if it’s qualified, it’s not democracy). ‘Noise’ is the consequence of trust in other people, even though they might be wrong. Noise is what you have to suffer, when you understand that science is messy and that science and politics are not easily delineated. And noise is what you must accept you may be producing in an open, democratic society, in which science can trump politics.

You can’t stand on a soapbox to shout about ‘the hydrological’, and expect an audience to obediently go away, to rebuild society on the premise of the seemingly correct understanding of climate. Not even scientists have the right not to be challenged, to be challenged robustly, and to be challenged by people who are wrong. ‘Noise’ is ultimately the process by which the best way forward is negotiated, in spite of mistakes made on the way. Gavin, albeit mealy-mouthed, seems to have realised that the idea that scientists channel uncontaminated, noise-free truth from objectivity itself, is not credible.

This returns us to the question, how is it that is becomes ought?

One reminder of the real role that science is playing in society, and why Gavin misapprehends the human world’s relationship with the environment is the recent death of Sociologist, Ulrich Beck.

Beck, along with New Labour sociologist Anthony Giddens, developed an influential theory of Risk Society. According to Beck, the modern era — technological, industrial society — had exposed society to ever greater, global risks, and that our awareness of these risks and the scepticism of modernity’s achievements marked the beginning of a new historical era, in which this awareness of risks and their amelioration would become the basis of politics. In particular, Beck, the European Federalist, noted environmental risks, and his thinking is in many sense the blueprint for environmental policy. An informative interview with Beck on the LSE’s website reveals how the concept of risk altered the political landscape, and became the basis for new political institutions:

If we look at how the issue of climate change fits into the general perspective we have in politics and the social sciences, we can see the limitations of what I call ‘methodological nationalism’. We frame almost every issue, whether it relates to class, conflict, or politics, in the context of nation states organised in the international sphere.

However, when we look at the world from the perspective of climate change, this doesn’t fit at all. For example, if we take the basic concept of risk – in this case global climate risk – we find that there is a new power structure already imbedded within the logic of this concept. This is because, when we talk about risk, we first of all have to relate it to decisions and decision-makers. We have to make a fundamental distinction between those who take the risk and those who are affected by it. In the case of climate change these groups of people are completely different. Those who are taking the decisions are not accountable from the perspective of those who are affected by the risks, and those who are affected have no real way of participating in the decision-making process.

So from the start we have an imperialistic structure because the decision-making process and the consequences are attributed to completely different groups. We can only observe this when we step outside of a nation state perspective and take a broader view of the issue. I call this a cosmopolitan perspective, where the unit of research is a community of risk which includes what is excluded in the national perspective: i.e. the decision makers and the consequences of their decisions.

Beck’s largely imagined, and entirely unquantified notion of climate catastrophe allowed him to construct the idea of an imperialism of risk, to which the solution appears to be the construction of a cosmopolitan institution — let us call it the UNFCCC — to mediate the relationship between the two putative categories of people: those who benefit from risk and those who pay for it. Hence the climate activist’s, UN cheerleader’s and European Federalist’s maxim: ‘global problems need global solutions’. The truer maxim, however, is that global solutions need global problems.

Beck’s blueprint (if it wasn’t merely an observation), is not hard to spot in debates about climate. Take Nicholas Stern’s words, for example…

Policy-making is usually about risk management. Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making. … Thus, climate science supports sound policy when it informs risk management, informing the selection of climate policy measures that influence key aspects of the causal chain of climate change. This chain runs: from humans to emissions and changes in atmospheric concentrations; from changes in concentrations to changes in weather conditions which, with their induced feedbacks, change the climate; and from the weather of this altered climate to changes in risks and the circumstances of individuals. Coherent risk management across such a chain requires input from both the social sciences and the physical sciences, and not only from economics and physics but also from other disciplines, such as ethics. Deep insights and frightening uncertainty in one link may prove either critical or irrelevant, as the implications of a policy option are propagated down the chain to explore their ultimate impact on people.

Stern and Smith, you will note, were housed at the same institution as Beck — The London School of Economics. These economists have eschewed the idea that simple wealth is the best defence against things as trivial as different weather — climate resistance.

And their way of looking at the world exists outside of the climate debate, which brings us back to the Royal Society, and what it and its presidents were trying to do with their scientific authority. Rees, in an online bet, and in his book, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?, claimed that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event.”

by 2020 there will be thousands-even millions-of people with the capability to cause a catastrophic biological disaster. My concern is not only organized terrorist groups, but individual wierdos with the mindset of the people who now design computer viruses.

By “bioerror”, I mean something which has the same effect as a terror attack, but rises from inadvertance rather than evil intent.

And it is Rees who really lets the cat out of the bag, and gives the best illustration of the transformed role of science — the thing that Gavin Schmidt is advocating — in society. Beck’s observation is that the modern era unleashes ever greater risks, and that these risks become the basis on which politics is organised. In other words, it is science which unleashes destructive potential. But it is that potential, in the hands of people, that science becomes risky. Rees worries that an incautious or malicious scientist will kill a million people in one event, and that as the 21st Century develops, so the potential for wrong-doing and error increases. While risk society appears to be conceived of in order to protect people, and science is emphasised by its advocates to inform people, what is really going on in these arguments is not in their interests — it is intended to deprive them. In this, postmodern scientific era, people need to be regulated, because as individuals, and as groups, they are risk factors to themselves, to each other, and to the continued survival of the species and life on the planet.

Whether or not Gavin Schmidt would agree with Stern, Beck or Rees, their words describe the context into which he has stepped, nonetheless. That is what ‘science’ is doing in the 21st Century: regulating people, limiting their expectations and making arguments from authority, for authority, in contrast to the promises made by science in the modern era, to respond to the desire to improve circumstances. On the Risk Society perspective, improving our lot through industrialisation has inadvertently created incalculable risks, which need to be mitigated by the likes of Stern and Rees.

So it is not enough to admit, mealy mouthed, that he is an advocate for ‘science’; science is not a straightforward thing. The scientific process may well be simple enough, but the priorities and presuppositions of science as an institution — which ‘speaks’ to the public, to tell them what to do and what to expect — owes much more to the historical context and to politics and ideology than its advocate can admit. Like Beck, Rees and Stern, Schmidt imagines a society, not comprised of autonomous, thinking agents, capable of negotiating their own risks and responding to their own ‘challenges’; but of a fragile system, which is closely dependent on stability for its own survival, imperilled by the arbitrary decisions and desire of so many unthinking, blind, and ignorant bodies.