The Spy Who Nagged Me

The Guardian has a couple of articles claiming that the UK police infiltrated environmental activist organisations.

Today’s paper:

He turned up with long hair, tattoos and an insatiable appetite for climbing trees. Few people suspected anything odd of the man who introduced himself as Mark Stone on a dairy farm turned spiritual sanctuary in North Yorkshire.

Yesterday’s Observer:

Legal documents suggest Kennedy’s activities went beyond those of a passive spy, prompting activists to ask whether his role in organising and helping to fund protests meant he turned into an agent provocateur.

There is some speculation that a current trial of protesters may collapse as a consequence.

It’s all very intriguing, of course. But all the talk of the possibility that Mark Stone/Kennedy may have been an ‘agent provocateur’ belies the fact that the state — that is to say the British government, and the UK’s political establishment — wanted the same thing as the protesters: strong, international, legally-binding restrictions on CO2 emissions. The thing which has held the deadlocked government back from realising its ambitions is that dreaded nuisance, the British public, not those dreadlocked nuisances, eco-protesters.

To make the point, here are again two things I’m fond of using to demonstrate the fact that the eco-activists are merely doing what the government want them to do. Here is the current PM, holding a press release at Greenpeace’s London HQ:

[youtube 8gr5rIK097E]

Here is the previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, Ed Miliband, now leader of the Labour Party:

When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.

Maybe the police were worried about what might happen if environmental activists actually succeeded in targeting one or more of the UK’s power stations, disrupting the Grid. I know, it sounds crazy.

But if the police are really worried about public order in the wake of self-righteous activists closing down the UK’s electricity supply, leading to widespread chaos, they should perhaps go and have a word with these sitting-down-activists…

… rather than these ones…

One Law for Tree, Another for Ewe

This is Polly Higgins, she’s a barrister, and an eco-warrior. She wants there to be an international law to punish ‘ecocide’.

[youtube NwQ82ZQJ6Hk]

This is why this is an absurd idea, in case it wasn’t already obvious.

Higgins idea is that ecocide is

“the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory have been severely diminished”

There are already many problems with this idea, and it has only just been taken out of its box.

The biggest problem is that ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory’ has happened spontaneously, or ‘naturally’, throughout history. Perhaps in the same way, entire groups of people have perished. But we would not call the death of a given population of people through plague, famine, or some other natural catastrophe ‘genocide’, which is what Higgins wants us to understand ‘ecocide’ as equivalent to. And by the same token, there has never been a natural genocide.

You couldn’t try ‘nature’ for the spontaneous transformation of forest into savannah or desert, nor for the emergence or passing of an ice age. Yet these things surely are nothing but ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory’ which ‘severely diminishes’ the ‘peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory’. So in order to cope with this problem, Higgins makes a distinction between ‘ascertainable ecocide’: deforestation, oil spills, fossil fuel extraction, pollution-dumping; and non-ascertainable ecocide: tsunami, earthquake, typhoon, Act of God. The line of interest here is that ecocide is caused ‘by human agency or by other causes’, but it’s only ecocide that is ’caused by human agency’ which is pertinent.

Several new problems emerge.

1. Is ‘ascertainable ecocide’ (deforestation, oil spills, fossil fuel extraction, pollution-dumping) a problem for ‘the inhabitants of [a] territory’, if it is not the case that ‘peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory have been severely diminished’? This is the ‘if a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody to hear it, does it still make a sound’ question for the eco-lawer-warrior.

2. Is there not an acceptable level of diminished ‘peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory’, and what is it? That is to say, surely we accept the occasional oil spill, because pulling oil out of the ground creates many new possibilities for human life, which are not possible otherwise. Put another way, isn’t the occasional disturbance of ‘peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of [some] territory’ the price of a better condition of existence?

Before any light is shed on these questions, Higgins outlines the concept of ‘crimes against peace’, which have already been established, and which are tried in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

[youtube JHO30rNSksA]

The existing ‘crimes against peace’ are crimes against people: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crime, crime of aggression. They are, according to Higgins:

  • a) Principles of universal validity which apply to civilisation as a whole
  • b) The prohibition of certain behaviour
  • c) Universally outlawed
  • d) morality based on the sacredness of life

These definitions are somewhat redundant. ‘Principles of universal validity which apply to civilisation as a whole’, for instance means no more than ‘law’. And most laws are to some extent the ‘prohibition of certain behaviour’. Point c — ‘Universally outlawed’ — is a mere restatement of a and b. Higgins could have shed as much light on ‘crimes against peace’ by saying ‘laws are laws’.

‘In essence’, says Higgins, ‘a crime against peace is a morality based on the sacredness of life’. Can she really mean that?

Genocide is a ‘crime against peace’, so a simple substitution of equivalent terms gives us the following paraphrase:

Genocide is a morality based on the sacredness of life.

It should be clear here that Higgins is talking gobbledegook. To be charitable (or rather, to give sense to her proposition such that we can take issue with it) what she seems to want to say is that life is sacred, and that therefore there is a moral imperative to protect life, and that the laws which prohibit ‘crimes against peace’ are intended to serve that imperative. The laws and the crimes they prohibit are not ‘a morality’; laws are not morality, and morality is not law. One can act morally outside of the law, and conversely one can act immorally within the law, and one can seek to turn moral ideas into laws, but they will never be equivalents. Higgins, the barrister, has presumably studied law, and so really ought to be aware of the distinction. Moreover, Higgins should be aware of the distinction between a crime and a law.

The difficulty Higgins has with a clear exposition of the ‘crimes against peace’ and their philosophical basis is owed to the fact that she wants to make them do what they were not actually designed to do. Higgins wants to extend ‘crimes against peace’ to protect all life, whereas they are originally conceived to protect only human life. That is to say that the moral foundation of the laws prohibiting ‘crimes against peace’ is the understanding of the sacredness of human life, not life in general. Thus her list a through c is designed to sound like a plausible set of premises, but in fact are tautologous, ultimately meaningless, and are not reflected in the wider literature about ‘crimes against peace’. For instance, if you search for these expressions on Google, you will find that it returns results that link mainly to discussions about Higgins’ own conception of ecocide, not international law. Thus this outline of crimes against peace is very much unique to Higgins.

So it is only after her reinvention of ‘crimes against peace’ that they become about protecting ‘the well being of life’, and a sleight of hand allows her to extend this to ‘the well being of all life’ as though she had only made a minor adjustment to the language:

These crimes are put in place to protect and uphold the well-being of life. I’m proposing that we extend that definition to including a fifth crime. And that is the crime of ecocide. And we extend the well being of life to not just human life, but to all life.

But this is far more than a minor adjustment to the language. It is a complete re-writing of the language and its meanings, and the philosophical underpinnings.

Now we have an answer to our two questions from the first film. The ‘inhabitants’ who are the victims in the definition of ecocide:

the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory have been severely diminished

… are any entity which is ‘life’. I.E. the members of the ecosystem are the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Tree, bug, germ, mouse, bush, mushroom… are all now protected by the law prohibiting ecocide.

So the most obvious (and fatal) problem for Higgins definition of ‘ecocide’ is that it should only be prohibited by law if we hold with its premise that ‘all life is sacred’. Some people may well believe such a thing, but they are few and far between, and there is no automatic reason to assume that people would necessarily agree with this, in the way that we can expect people to have mutual regard for human life.

That should be enough to show that ‘ecocide’ should not be made a crime. It is a matter of conscience, perhaps. But not a matter for courts of law. Nonetheless, there emerge some curious contradictions and redundancies from the original conception, which reveal more about Higgins ‘thinking’ in particular, and of environmentalism in general.

On Higgins’ view, human agency makes humans subject to the law prohibiting ecocide in order to protect all life. But the definition does not protect all life from itself, nor humans from other organisms. Humans, then, are exceptional, in that the faculty of agency makes it possible for them to be culpable, yet is not understood to give them any privilege, nor even any protection from the elements, or from any natural thing.

This is remarkable, because human agency is the exclusively human attribute from which the premise that ‘all human life is sacred’ emerges. It is the faculty of agency which makes human life sacred. Only a human can reason about the sacredness of anything, be it humanity, pig, or life. This is the premise of the international laws intended to protect human dignity from systematic degradation: mass murder, humiliation, persecution, and so on. But the object of sacredness in Higgins’s view is in the first instance human life as a mere biological process, not ‘human life’ as a mere condition of agency. Higgins misses the very important thing about human life: it is experienced; it has purpose, intention, values. Instead, on Higgins view, the thing which gives human life its identity is ‘agency’ as though it were some arbitrary characteristic, such as extravagant plumage, adaptation to a particular ecological niche, or some well-developed instinct that makes it subject to laws.

Higgins has denied the very thing which made ‘crimes against peace’ particular to humans. The consequence of her move from human exceptionalism to anti-humanism is that she commits the crimes that the definition of ‘crimes against peace’ were designed to prohibit: she degrades humanity. She credits humans with less moral worth than slugs and toads, not merely because she privileges some abstract notion of ‘life’ over ‘being alive’, but because she turns agency — which ought to be a characteristic that privileges human life — into something which makes humans obliged to endure life within natural limits, while being the only organism capable of both endurance, and conceiving of a means to improve it: chopping down forests; drilling for oil, coal and gas; eradicating pests and diseases; intensive agriculture, etc.. etc.. This is what is meant on this blog by ‘anti-humanism’. It runs deep throughout environmentalism. Yet it is presented by environmentalists as a straightforward telling of the facts.

More trivially, perhaps, is the redundancy within the definition of the crime.

the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory have been severely diminished

Now we know that the word ‘inhabitants’ means any living thing, and that living things comprise ‘ecosystems’, and that ecosystems are geographically bounded, we can again substitute equivalent terms in the expression to produce the following absurdity:

the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given ecosystem(s), whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the ecosystem(s) of that ecosystem(s) have been severely diminished

Higgins admits as much in a circuitous rewording of an existing crime against peace that protects the environment, the emphasis of which she again moves from people to all life in general.

‘widespread long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall COMMUNITY advantage anticipated’
= the extensive damage to the ecosystem(s)
= Ecocide

The law Higgins modifies had obviously been designed to protect those caught up in a war from aggressors damaging the productive capacity of the land. The law was never designed to protect ‘nature’ or ‘life’ in general. But through word play, and after concealing the basis for the law, Higgins radically transforms its purpose. The word ‘community’ had previously been ‘military’. Thus prohibiting any force from causing damage to the resources on which human populations depend, in order to inflict punitive or malicious damage to that population. The ‘natural environment’ gets substituted for ‘ecosystems’ and the word ‘community’ gets substituted, again, for the ‘members of ecosystems’, i.e. all life. So once again, the substitution reveals the tautology.

widespread long-term and severe damage to ecosystem(s) which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall ecosystem(s)’ advantage anticipated.

Clearly there are problems now with the proportion of any ‘ecocide’ crime. Ecocide could almost be any crime, otherwise. Chopping down a tree would deprive the ‘community’ of its ‘ecosystem’. Is chopping down a tree ‘ecocide’? Two trees? A small forest? To establish some proportion, Higgins establishes some existing legislation might be useful, with the definition of ‘size, duration and impact’. Size can be easily established, according to Higgins by doing things like looking at satellite images to gauge the extent of deforestation, for instance. Various agencies monitor the ‘depletion of species’, she says, and this information could be made available.

The recent Mexican gulf oil spill is given as an example of long-term extensive damage. Leaving aside the questions that exist about the actual extent of the damage caused by the oil spill, and taking Higgin’s claims at face value, the spill would surely not fall under either category of ‘ascertainable ecocide’ or ‘non-ascertainable ecocide’. After all, it wasn’t a deliberate leaking of oil into the ocean. And to compare it to the existing equivalent, genocide, no Nazi would have been able to pretend that they ‘accidentally’ murdered 6 million Jews. It wasn’t human ‘agency’ which caused the oil spill, because ‘agency’ isn’t a factor in the kind of negligence that would ’cause’ an accident. Moreover, since it is people, and not abstract agencies such as ‘companies’ that she wants to try, it would be hard to locate the individuals ‘responsible’ in such a huge operation. Yet presumably, she want’s to hold BP’s directors — who likely had little to do with the actually technical process — to account. Again, the concept of agency in Higgins’ understanding is limited, and only serves to make humans morally culpable, without being in fact independent moral agents.

Higgins moves on to establish ‘why’ it is necessary to make ‘ecocide’ a crime.

[youtube PF8rTEqBai0]

Says Higgins…

  1. 100 living species become extinct
  2. 1,000 acres of peat bogs are excavated
  3. 150,000 acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed
  4. 2 million tons of toxic waste is dumped
  5. 22 million tons of oil are extracted
  6. 100 million tons of GHGs are released
  7. … each day

These look like dramatic figures. But the basis for #1 at least, can be ignored straight away as completely alarmist. The definition of ‘species’ is not particularly robust, and the only way that the existence of a species can be established is by a positive identification. The non-existence of a species can only be established by looking everywhere, simultaneously — an impossibility. These results are the product of a model, and the model itself is going to contain far more assumptions than facts. And just as the notion of ‘species’ is ambiguous, so too is the definition of ‘extinction’. The weakest of all material claims made by environmentalists are about ‘biodiversity’ and extinction.

We can also ask ‘so what’ to the remaining questions. What is the problem of 1,000 acres of peat bog being excavated? What value does peat have, while it merely sits there, being peat? And isn’t Higgins also against the extraction of fossil fuels which would make it unnecessary to extract peat — if it’s being used for energy? How much rainforest is really being destroyed? Where? and isn’t it also true that many parts of the world are seeing massive reforestation? And again, isn’t it the case that the real saviour of the forests is the oil well? If there’s oil and coal available, who in their right mind would want to use wood?

The UN, says Higgins, as though it were an authority, says that ‘ecosystems are at tipping point’, as if that meant anything. But it doesn’t. What is a ‘tipping point’? More to the point, what is an ecosystem, and how is it determined what its ‘tipping point’ actually is? Nobody knows. Onto this bogus ecological reasoning, Higgins adds the headline findings from an attempt to determine the financial value of ‘ecosystem services’, and the ‘damage’ to them that has been caused by ‘corporates’. Between $2.2 and $4 trillion, she claims, of ‘ecocide’. But is this spurious figure a big price for the benefit? What’s the point of assessing costs without assessing benefits? Don’t ask the UK’s former chief prognosticator, Sir David King, who believes that the conflicts in Dafur and Iraq are fought for water and oil respectively, and that as such, we can say that this century will be the century of ‘resource wars’. But what does a scientist know about wars, and why they are fought? The claims can be easily dismissed. Dafur is a region that has historically experienced long and deep periods of drought — mother natures own form of ecocide; and before either of the military campaigns in the gulf, the price of oil stood stable at around $20/barrel. At such low prices, the real problem is not resource scarcity, but on the contrary, its over abundance. David King’s advice to the government is as ill-conceived as Higgins’; yet King was actually appointed. The lunatics are running the asylum. But if only it was as simple as madness…

We have to break the cycle, says Higgins, of ecocide>resource-depletion>conflict>war. She demands that it be broken urgently. But her claims are premature. A recent study in PNAS concluded that

Scientific claims about a robust correlational link between climate variability and civil war do not hold up to closer inspection. […] The graph shows change in the estimated probability of civil war (five variants) for six alternative climate measures, based on 1,000 simulations for each model specification. Given the feeble impact of climate, illustrating the range of uncertainty is more meaningful than plotting point estimates of predicted probabilities. In all but one of the specifications, the 95% confidence bands for the climate variables include both positive and negative effects. Moreover, neither temperature nor precipitation performs consistently across models as even the sign of the mean first difference estimate for a given variable is sensitive to model specification. Only the final model (5f in Fig. 2) returns a statistically significant climate parameter estimate; apparently, major civil war years (i.e., years with at least 1,000 battle deaths) are more frequent in years following unusually wet periods—a result that directly contradicts the notion of scarcity-induced conflicts.

As has been argued on this blog, the naturalisation of complex social phenomena such as conflict and poverty is one of the most damaging things about environmentalism. Now we can see this danger made real in the prose of Higgins’ argument. She pretends that a law abolishing ‘ecocide’ will prevent war. But surely the reality is the opposite. The implication that wars are fought for resources should create an imperative to locate more resources, and better ways of using them. But instead, Higgins wants us to reduce the production of water, and oil. Far from reducing the possibility of resource wars, by limiting their supply, environmentalism and environmental institutions such as laws against ecocide will make them happen.

[youtube WgFSE9yMm_s]

Higgins now moves to consider ‘lessons from history’. And this is something we’ve all seen before: the comparison of arguments against environmental regulation with arguments against the abolition of slavery. Slavery is a topic discussed on this blog here, here, and here. And as we point out, the comparison of making equivalents of using oil and using slaves depends on the degraded understanding of what makes slavery wrong in the first place. It should be no surprise that somebody who only holds with the limited understanding of human agency that Higgins has should find it easy to draw a comparison between denying humans the right to express their freedom and filling up the car.

Listen carefully to Higgins’ narrative:

We can see what happened 200 years ago with the aboltion of slavery. At that time there were 300 companies trading either directly or indirectly in slaves. There were 600 million slaves on the market. What we had there was upstream, the traders who were the 300 companies and downstream we had the 6,000 consumers. They were the end users.

In 1810 — 200 years ago — there were just 1 billion people on the planet. The graphic says differently, but in the voice over, Higgins claims that 600 million of them were slaves. I assume that she intended to say that there were 6 million slaves, but that she got confused. But the mistake it speaks generally about her lack of fluency with the facts she’s using that she didn’t spot her mistake as she said it, nor even in post production, nor even in watching it since it has been published. But the figure is meaningless in any case. Slavery, of course, only features in this argument to provide a moral absolute: something we’re already committed to. It’s a lazy way of making an argument. And it gets more sloppy. The abolitionists’ strategy was to turn off the supply of slaves, and so it is with resource ‘exploitation’: we should turn off supply. We should make those responsible for supplying resources also responsible for ecocide. And the arguments against abolishing slavery look like the arguments against environmental legislation. Even if this is true — which seems unlikely, unless you think that a barrel of oil ought to have legal rights — it’s true only by virtue of the facts of the market. Arguments about the regulation of any trade will take a similar form, because, although the commodities in question may be different, the mechanism of their exchange is always similar. That’s the point of capital: it permits the exchange of things of different types: labour, wool, coal, and food have little in common as substances, but can be exchanged for money, and vice-versa. There is absolutely nothing of interest, therefore, in the comparisons Higgins draws.

[youtube _uCB8FfO2UI]

Higgins now considers some institutions that already exist, which may serve the aim of fighting ecocide. There’s not much to say about the nonsense, except to say that she again extends the definition of existing legal definition to encompass all organisms, not merely people. She then extends this further to argue that ‘We need now to move towards protecting all community interests. So that would be the water, as well as the soils, as well as the air, as well as the land, as well as the species who live within that territory.’ It would not be able to exist as an organism in the world Higgins wants to create.

Ecocide is already understood as a moral crime, says Higgins, it just needs to be made formal. But how true is this?

It may well be true that oil spills and the like cause public anger. But this is largely because it has an effect on people, and that such a mess for both humans and wildlife might, in many cases, have been avoided by due care. The claim that the public reaction to environmental disaster legitimises the creation of a law banning ecocide is a stretch: most people do not think that trees, nor water, air and land, have rights.

Punishing ecocide with fines doesn’t work, says Higgins, only incarceration provides the disincentive necessary to prevent it. She would lock up CEOs, heads of states, heads of financial institutions. These people would not want to jeopardise their liberty, and so would refuse to permit, or involve themselves with anything likely to cause ‘ecocide’. Thus they are turned from planet-destroyers into planet-savers. Meanwhile, of course, nothing would happen. No mining of energy. No economic or technological development. No chemical production. No industrial agriculture. No hospitals. No schools. No Factories. There could only be subsistence lifestyles in Higgins’ bleak Utopia.

[youtube qkimgUYb5uU]

Higgins now summarises her argument, begining with an account of ‘strict liability’ as it stands in the UK.

Parliament creates an offence of strict liablity because it regards the doing or not doing of a particular thing itself so undesirable as to merit the imposition of a criminal punishment on anyone… irrespective of that party’s knowledge, state of mind, belief or intention.

The involves a departure from the prevailing cannons of the criminal law because of the importance which is attached to achieving the result which Parliament seeks to achieve.

On this basis, shouldn’t proposing the crime of ecocide should fall into this category? It is a disgusting idea, which degrades the very concept of humanity, making the human no more significant before the law than an ant, worm, or for that matter, germ… Except that, unlike animals, humans can be tried and punished. This idea, then, is worse even than the medieval practice of trying animals as happened throughout Europe. Infestations of rats, insects, leeches would result in their being summoned before a court, and threatened with excommunication. They were, as beings in creation, subject to Gods law, and as such were given legal representation, and often won, leaving humans to suffer. It took the enlightenment to end such practice. And it was in this era that the concept of humanity developed, such that we would now see the summoning of an animal to court, or extending rights to animals as legal subjects as ridiculous. Until now, that is. Higgins, who wants to extend legal rights to trees and insects — the ‘wider earth community’ — epitomises the end of humanism:

View the planet as an inert thing, and what we do is we impose a value. We commoditise the planet. That is property law. View the planet as a living being, and we recognise the intrinsic value, and we take responsibility.

What was discovered during the enlightenment was that nature has no intrinsic value. Value is an inherently human concept. Only humans valorise. Nothing else is capable of understanding value. Without humans, then, the planet really is inert. Moreover, it is evident that the planet is not a living being — no planet is a living being. By presupposing a ‘value’ for ‘the planet as a living being’ Higgins reduces the whole of humanity into merely another species, and this creates the basis of a system of law — a powerful set of institutions — to extend the reach of her poisonous ideas. As I pointed out in the previous post, Higgins wants to replace the tyranny that exists as a figment of her imagination as a real, functioning, institution: eco law, which punishes eco criminals. The real purpose of eco law is to create an eco-tyranny, in control of resources in exactly the way Higgins imagines EON to be.

If the law is an ass, its mother, the law-maker is presumably not going to be troubled by the family resemblance being pointed out — she is after all, by her own admission, no better than any other ‘inhabitant of the wider earth community’.

It seems unlikely that her ideas will ever be realised, because there would be a very real fight about any such law and the institutions to serve it being created.

Yet having said that, there remains an important question. How is it possible that someone can come to embrace these absurd ideas without seeming to have reflected at all critically on their soundness, and their consequences? If it can happen to Higgins, can’t it happen to any other eco-loon in a position of power?

This blog has argued previously that environmentalists have tended to alienate themselves through the expression of their own ideas in the public sphere. Maybe this has two implications.

First, we should openly point at and mock Higgins and any institution that gives her ideas positive space: the Guardian, and the UN, in this case.

Second, we should take more seriously the fact that the positive developments that the last few centuries of human history have produced seem to be disappearing from public debate. We now have Higgins demanding a forced march back beyond the dark ages. We should be sure about what we are defending, and not imagine that this is just a debate about whether or nor ‘climate change is happening’ that can be settled with the correct scientific account. It’s bigger than that, and even climate change alarmists should be concerned about what Higgins proposes.

Eco-Nutcases Make Bad Law

Geoff points us to a Guardian article, which he points out goes some way to demonstrating the tendency of climate-alarmists to undermine their own credibility, and to alienate themselves against the wider public. Rather like the 10:10 campaign did with the ‘splattergate’snuff video…

Why we need a law on ecocide Until we have a law to prosecute those who destroy the planet, corporations will never be called to account for their crimes

Sophie Scholl, a Munich University student, was executed for revealing the truth about the activities of the Nazi authorities; today 20 brave Ratcliffe whistleblowers have been sentenced at Nottingham crown court for plotting to draw attention to the truth of the activities of another German entity. This time, replace the tyranny of the Nazis with the tyranny of the energy giant E.ON.

It should not be necessary to point it out: the Nazis systematically murdered millions of people; E.ON provides its customers — homes, schools, hospitals, churches, synagogoes, mosques, factories, offices — with electricity. If any of its customers don’t want to use electricity, they are free to turn off their appliances, and go hug a tree.

There is no Tyranny of E.ON. Nonetheless, in Polly Higgins’ fertile imagination, there is. And she proposes that to overthrow it, we need the creation of an international law, like the ‘crimes against peace’, such as genocide, called ‘ecocide’. That’s right, Higgins wants to oust the imaginary tyranny with a very real one. Says Higgins,

Sixty years ago the tyranny was Nazism. Today it is pursuit of profit without moral compass or responsibility. Despite the planned Ratcliffe protests, it is one that the majority of humanity accepts regardless of the known consequences. We look the other way
from the daily reports of destruction of our world by those who are in a position of superior responsibility; the master controllers of our fates are those who determine how we live our lives. It is the heads of the top corporations who gamble with the fate of our planet; those who produce and supply our energy are the most culpable of all.

Notice that Higgins first points the fingers at us… We’re no longer innocent bystanders: ‘… the majority of humanity accepts regardless of the known consequences.’ There are only degrees of guilt in her nasty moral universe.

She then makes an interesting move. In her view, we are culpable because we ignore ‘the master controllers of our fates are those who determine how we live our lives’, but we’re less culpable than the real baddies. And her answer, of course, is to morally-blackmail us into consenting to the creation of the means to create precisely the role of ‘master controller’, which hitherto only existed in her imagination. Higgins’ conception of ‘ecocide’ would make it almost impossible to run a company that produces and supplies energy. Thus the supply and production of energy falls under the control of a cartel of eco-lawyers.

Polly Higgins… You are an eco-fascist.

Disclaiming Environmentalism

Another interesting disclaimer from the front cover of expensive reports commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change… This one looks at the future of wind energy in the UK.

While Pöyry Energy (Oxford) Ltd (“Pöyry”) considers that the information and opinions given in this work are sound, all parties must rely upon their own skill and judgement when making use of it. Pöyry does not make any representation or warranty, expressed or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this report and assumes no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of such information. Pöyry will not assume any liability to anyone for any loss or damage arising out of the provision of this report. The report contains projections that are based on assumptions that are subject to uncertainties and contingencies. Because of the subjective judgements and inherent uncertainties of projections, and because events frequently do not occur as expected, there can be no assurance that the projections contained herein will be realised and actual results may be different from projected results. Hence the projections supplied are not to be regarded as firm predictions of the future, but rather as illustrations of what might happen. Parties are advised to base their actions on an awareness of the range of such projections, and to note that the range necessarily broadens in the latter years of the projections.

Most interesting in my view is the line that ‘The report contains projections that are based on assumptions that are subject to uncertainties and contingencies.’

Isn’t that true of the environmentalists’ entire argument?

Forecasting Ambivalence

While we’re on the subject of making predictions… I was interested in this post by Roger Pielke Jr yesterday.

Forecasting the future is fraught with difficulties.  It can be even more challenging if people pay attention to your forecasts and use them in decision making.  So it is perhaps understandable that some forecasters seek to avoid accountability for their predictions.

Pielke is responding to the emergence of some embarrassing internal memos from the Met Office, in which the author considers ways to plausibly distance the organisation from its statements. The contents of the MO’s machinations are by-the-by… Pielke continues,

The idea that forecasts, once made, leave an agency “hostage to fortune” is no doubt true, but it can also be crucially important information for the public to evaluate the reliability of future forecasts.  The criticism that the Met Office has faced in recent years results from too much credibility being placed in their forecasts.  Highlighting the true state of predictive capabilities can help decision makers to understand better the uncertainties in forecasting, even if that means low credibility for the forecasters.

This is a point made often here. Over-statement, exaggeration, dramatisation, moralisation, and so on, are all things that have, in the past year created the embarrassment for the climate alarmist. That is to say climate alarmism undermines its own credibility.

The Met Offices recent embarrassments relate to weather more than climate, of course. And as we are often told ‘weather is not climate’ (unless it’s weather that demonstrates global warming). And so there have been predictable (pardon the pun) comments to the effect that the short-term predictive skill of weather forecasters says nothing about their colleagues’ ability to predict future climate. That’s easy for them to say, of course.

So there’s predicting weather. And there’s predicting climate. And presumably, there’s predicting the consequences of the predicted climate. And then there’s the predictions about how effective policies will be, and what their costs will be, which weigh up one set of forecasts against another. It’s a vast web of predictions, which must in itself call into question the safety — if not the sanity — of all this projection. Nonetheless, we are reminded that ‘the science is in‘.

While doing some research today, I came across this neat little caveat at the front of a report by AEA, which describes itself as A world leading energy & climate change consultancy. It reminded me of Pielke’s post.

Confidentiality, copyright and reproductionThis report is the Copyright of Defra and has been prepared by AEA Technology plc under contract to Defra. The contents of this report may not be reproduced in whole or in part, nor passed to any organisation or person without the specific prior written permission of Defra. AEA Technology plc accepts no liability whatsoever to any third party for any loss or damage arising from any interpretation or use of the information contained in this report, or reliance on any views expressed therein.

The report was commissioned by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which was established by the Climate Change Act 2008. AEA were commissioned by the CCC to produce a number of reports and analyses, so that the CCC could advise Parliament on what the carbon budgets for each 5 year period to 2050 should be. You can see all the ‘supporting research’ for the CCC’s carbon budget advice to Parliament for the first 3 budgeting periods at the CCCs website, here.

AEA produces the following reports:

AEA (2008) MARKAL-MED model runs of long term carbon reduction targets in the UK (1)
AEA (2008) MARKAL-MED model runs of long term carbon reduction targets in the UK (2)
AEA (2008) Review and update of UK abatement cost curves for the industrial, domestic and non-domestic sectors
AEA (September 2008) Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping: trends, projections and abatement potential

… And each of them contains the same caveat:

AEA Technology plc accepts no liability whatsoever to any third party for any loss or damage arising from any interpretation or use of the information contained in this report, or reliance on any views expressed therein.

There are approximately 60 million third parties to this report, to which its authors accept no responsibility. Yet their futures, and the futures of the millions more who will be born after the Climate Change Act, are in no small way being decided by the content of this report, which its authors accept no responsibility for. And this little caveat gives us a glimpse into the nature of contemporary politics.

At the bottom, are these 60 million people, none of whom has had the opportunity to express their views on environmental politics at the ballot box. At the ‘top’, so to speak, is a Parliament, comprised of parties which have each absorbed environmentalism and climate-alarmism. Yet in spite of this consensus, the parties were unable to interpret ‘the science’ to turn it into policy. So they created the CCC to which they deferred technical, scientific, and economic policy-making. The CCC in turn defer to environmental consultants. Everyone is claiming to be the one ‘saving the planet’, yet nobody is accepting any responsibility for making policy, or for producing the evidence for ‘evidence-based policy-making’.

In normal democratic politics, people have a sanction. Come the beginning of a new electoral term, even if we lack something to vote for positively, political disappointments can be de-selected, or the parties that represent their ideas voted against. Yet what opportunity is there to express our (lack of) confidence in an environmental consultancy which lacks the balls to even put its money where its mouth is? What opportunity is there to challenge the CCC, and the values and ideas it brings to its analysis? And when did the political parties ever have the bravery to reflect critically and publicly on the climate agenda?

Yet the projections supplied to the CCC and to Parliament must stand as equivalent in some way to the ideas which once informed normal politics. That is to say that these projections are political in their function, even if the content of them seems to be scientific, objective, and value-neutral.

Perhaps I am over-stating things here. Perhaps the caveat is a mere formality, designed to pre-empt some unforeseen legal problem. But to me it reads like a get-out clause by an outfit which knows its product is not fit-for-purpose. Like a cheaply manufactured, low-quality knock-off item sold without guarantee out of a car boot or garage sale. Caveat emptor.  Except we don’t buy it… We haven’t bought it. The only people who have bought it are the people who have shirked their responsibilities, but kept their office.

Perhaps the Met Office and the AEA are now beginning to realise the extent to which forecasting and prediction are now political functions. As Pielke points out, ‘The idea that forecasts, once made, leave an agency “hostage to fortune” is no doubt true’… The response has been the ‘plausible denial’ of agency itself: politicians can say, like Blair leaving office, having launched wars from dodgy dossiers, ‘I did what I thought was right‘. Panels of experts can claim that they merely reviewed ‘the best available science’. And those engaged in projecting and forecasting can say that they’re not responsible for the decisions that are made in the light of their research. ‘Don’t blame me, I only work here’…

The Year of the Sceptic?

The Guardian have annouced that ‘2010 was the Year of the [climate] Sceptics‘.

But, says the Guardian, sceptics should not sleep easy in their beds; ‘science’ is making a comeback…

By contrast, 2011 could just see the triumph of science, for two reasons.

First, the facts are increasingly stark. 2010 looks set to equal or exceed 1998 as the warmest year on record. And it doesn’t stop there. 1998 hit record levels in part because it coincided with the warming impacts of ‘El Nino’. By contrast, 2010’s highs have happened despite the cooling influence of ‘La Nina’.

Second, in the wake of Climategate, scientists are realising that pure research ain’t enough: they need to communicate much better, too – and engage openly with their adversaries. The more that happens, the more threadbare the rhetoric of denial will appear. The grudging agreement reached at Cancun will help; all the more so because both China and India have come on board as never before.

The hack-activists at the Guardian still believe that the debate divides on ‘the science’, such that one side consists of ‘scientists’ and the other, ‘sceptics’/’deniers’. This is a view of the debate that this blog has spent much time debunking, to spend much time repeating it would be pointless; they’re simply not listening. Briefly, then…

2010 was ‘the year of the sceptics’, not because the sceptics triumphed, but because climate alarmism weakened.

Climategate didn’t do as much to undermine climate science as it undermined the picture that the Guardian — amongst others — had painted of climate scientists as saintly warriors for truth. Once its silly cartoonish view of the debate had suffered embarrassment, so too did its entire argument. The point the Guardian misses in its observation that ‘that pure research ain’t enough’, is that it never was ‘pure research’ driving the debate; ‘pure research’, that is, in either the sense of unadulterated science or morally unimpeachable — both senses being interchangeable in the Guardian’s bizarre narration of the climate debate. Scientists, if they ‘come out’ as the Guardian are anticipating, will only reveal more of the same. Let’s welcome them, whichever putative side they belong too… If only there was allowed to be a debate, were it not not for the shrill histrionics from that newspaper… Bring it on.

This doesn’t mean scepticism will melt away overnight. With the impacts of global warming, as ever, lagging behind the rise in temperatures, the sceptics will still find a hearing. And they’ll be fired up by a new kind of energy. For years, advocates of bold action on carbon cuts have argued that energy insecurity strengthens their case. That’ll be harder to maintain now that shale gas has entered the mix. Not only is it relatively cheap, but there is a truly humungous amount of it in the USA. The science may be settled, but the coming year will show that the debate is far from over.

2009-10 was even more a catastrophic episode for climate-environmentalism because its incoherence as a political idea became obvious as it got closer to being reproduced in real, functioning, political institutions and bureaucracies. COP15 didn’t fail to produce a meaningful agreement because it was invaded by sceptics; it fell apart because too much moral and political capital was invested in ‘the science’. Yet the Guardian still believe that all that it will take for ‘the sceptics’ to be routed is a year that is 0.01 degrees hotter than the previous, and ‘scientists’ bashing sceptics round the head with the proof. This is precisely the expectation which has undermined climate science. You can make any argument you like, and expect it to be taken as unadulterated truth, as long as its premise is that ‘climate change is happening’.

So what kind of year will 2011 be? This Last year, we made our own predictions on this blog:

First, we are anticipating that “scepticism” or “denial” – call it what you want – will become more organised this year, perhaps it already is. Second, although the climate issue is not going away, it has suffered terrible PR, and there is widespread recognition that the climate change pudding has been over-egged. We anticipate that the environmental debate will begin to refocus around the issue of over-population, rather than climate.

The sceptics have yet to prove themselves as organised as we thought they could be. Sadly it seems that many critics of environmentalism are still preoccupied with the idea that the science by itself is sufficient to understand and challenge the excesses of environmentalism. We’ve argued here that this is to mirror the mistake that environmentalists make; to believe that a negative or static temperature trend will defeat eco-dogma. Perhaps worse, it seems that where sceptics do venture more political arguments, it is to reinvent the political battles of the past than to shed any real light on the present. The use of the climate issue to reanimate lifeless political traditions and the conflicts they define themselves by speaks to the vacuity of the perspectives comprising the wider debate, not merely the climate issue. And that makes the second prediction yet more relevant; the climate issue could disappear from public life tomorrow, and barely a tenet of environmentalism will have been challenged. Climate alarmism will be able to simply slide into some other ground: the population issue.

So for 2011, I think we can say to the Guardian that if they thought 2010 really was ‘the year of the sceptic’, they ain’t seen nothing yetThey are their own worse enemy, and it seems that, judging by their recent articles, there is considerable scope for them to continue undermine themselves, without the help of sceptics.

But… in all seriousness, as several recent posts on this blog have discussed, the population genie is out of the green bottle. It is becoming respectable and mainstream with the help of media-friendly, but geriatric household names, such as Sir David Attenborough; and scientists such as the previous president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees; and James Lovelock. Being much less abstract an idea than climate change, Malthusianism will be an easier thing to sell to a public suffering from ‘austerity measures’, rising unemployment, increasing costs, and an increasingly detached political class and an ever more hopeless political opposition.

Happy new year!

Driving to Distraction

UK politics is taking a very spooky turn.

I came across this today in the course of some research…

Lords Science Committee expand Behaviour Change Inquiry to consider interventions to reduce car usage in towns and cities

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee have launched a new call for evidence as part of their inquiry into the use of behaviour change interventions in delivering Government policy. The Committee, who have been investigating behaviour change since July, have so far focused on Government efforts to promote healthy eating and reduce obesity. With the publication today of a second call for evidence, they are now turning their attention to policies designed to reduce car usage in towns and cities.

Call for Evidence ( PDF 228 KB)

The Committee are inviting written evidence on the issue from any interested parties by Friday 21 January 2011.  Some of the questions they are seeking answers to include:

  • What are the most influential drivers of behaviour affecting an individual’s choice of travel?
  • What role does infrastructure play in encouraging and facilitating changes in travel-mode choice?
  • What are the most appropriate type and level of delivery of behaviour change interventions to change travel-mode choice?
  • Are current policy interventions addressing both psychological and environmental barriers to change?
  • Are policy interventions appropriately designed and evaluated? What lessons have been learnt as a result of these evaluations?
  • What lessons can be learnt from interventions in other countries?

Baroness Neuberger, Chairman of the Inquiry on Behaviour Change, said in comment:

“We have had some very interesting evidence sessions in this inquiry, which has so far focused on efforts to reduce obesity. However, Government programmes to change behaviour go much wider than personal health alone.

“We will now focus on programmes designed to reduce car usage in towns and cities. Reducing the number of journeys made by private car is likely to be a big part of a  successful programme to reduce the level of carbon emissions in the UK.

“We will look at examples of where successful schemes have been implemented and examine what lessons can be learnt and applied elsewhere.”

I haven’t got much to say about this right now — nor the time — but a couple of points should stick out.

First… That there are Government programmes to change behaviour should worry us immensely. Aren’t they supposed to ‘work for you’?

Second. It’s interesting that climate change is the legitimising basis of this proposed intervention.

Third. There seems to be no call for evidence regarding the rightness or wrongness of intervening in this way, whether or not climate change is happening.

Perhaps it is incumbent on us to take the initiative. If you have any time this Christmas holidays, consider responding to the “Science Committee’s” social engineering project.

It’s time to modify their behaviour!

The Life of Brian – Science Messiah or Very Naughty Boy?

Brain Cox is a great science communicator. That is to say, he makes very effective TV programmes, which do not condescend, and do much to encourage an interest in science. But there is surely science as process, and there’s ‘science’ as an institution. It’s not clear which one Cox – who gave this year’s Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Lecture –  was speaking for. His lecture, given the title, ‘Science: a challenge to TV Orthodoxy’ was disappointing given his previous arguments for scientific research, and didn’t challenge orthodoxy as much as it reproduced it, almost entirely uncritically.

To people who follow the climate debate, the interesting things would seem to be Brian’s treatment of Martin Durkin’s film, The Great Global Warming Swindle, which was ‘bollocks’, in Cox’s view; and Iain Stewart’s Climate Wars series, which was held up as a model of good science documentary making. (More on those points shortly.)

But what Brian’s lecture really demonstrates is very much the problem in the background to the climate debate, not merely the problem within it. As we’ve argued here, environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause of the problems experienced in today’s society. Some interesting contradictions in Brian’s thesis reveal the context of the climate debate.

Take, for instance, these two statements, one made at the opening and the other further into his presentation.

Science is enjoying a renaissance in its political and cultural visibility. It was largely protected in the recent government spending review, which speaks not only to its economic value, but also to its increasing public profile.


So since the continuing health of our science programming depends on the public and therefore government support, and the steady flow of excited young people who want to become scientists and engineers, television clearly has a big responsibility to get its science programming right.

At the same time as Cox celebrates the apparent scientific renaissance, he seems to be concerned that television isn’t getting science right. This appears to be something of a contradiction. What kind of cultural renaissance misconceives the very substance that drives it?

To demonstrate the problem of broadcasters’ approach to science, Cox turns to the treatment of two scientific arguments. The first is the BBC’s handling of complaints about his (correct) claim that ‘astrology is a load of rubbish’ in his film, the Wonders of the Solar System. It had drawn the following complaint:

His careless assertion was unreserved, unsubstantiated and unscientific. Has he done any empirical studies? Has he explored his birth chart? … I have certainly never seen him at an astrology conference or read anything written by him about astrology… This bad science is an abuse of a position of trust in an educational scientific programme funded by BBC licence payers. BBC guidelines state that astrology must be presented in a balanced way.

When the BBC asked Cox for a response, he simply put his argument more forcefully. The BBC instead released a statement explaining that Cox’s views on astrology were his own, and not necessarily a reflection of the BBC’s views. The issue Cox takes here is with the supposition that broadcasters should be ‘neutral’ in their coverage of ‘controversies’.

Cox says that this is a trivial case, but that there are much more serious problems caused by the imperative of impartiality. The next case he explores concerns criticism of the the media’s coverage of the MMR-autism scare from Dr. Ben Goldacre. Goldacre says:

Now debate’s good. But this was conspiracy theory and ignorance. The pharmaceutical industry have certainly been guilty of cover-ups. But MMR just isn’t one of them. And it’s not as if scientists have ignored the question. Researchers in Denmark looked at half a million children. 400,000 had MMR. 100,000 didn’t. And yet the rates of autism was the same in both groups. You’ve not heard about research like this, because the media chose not to cover the evidence that goes against their scare story. I can’t blame parents for being terrified. Evidence-based medicine — the science of how we know if something is good for us, or bad for us — is fascinating. It’s easy to understand. And I think the public deserve the chance to hear about these ideas.

Just as the BBC had sought to distance itself from Cox’s statements about astrology, the ITN news programme featuring Goldacre’s authored piece also emphasised that the opinions reflected belonged to the author, not the broadcaster.

These two cases indeed seem to point to a problem, though it’s worth asking how representative they are. And Cox’s reflection on them is not deep. Astrology is, as Cox claims, a mystical view of the universe. But its adherents no longer express their ideas in supernatural terms. The complainant’s criticism of Cox is expressed in scientific terms. It accused him of bad science. However much nonsense it is, the complainant’s reformulation of a supernatural idea in scientific terms speaks volumes about science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’.

And to the MMR scare, we might want to say that, although the media’s appetite for controversy certainly raised the profile of the issue, scientists were at the heart of the story. Surrounding the coverage of Andrew Wakefield — the now disgraced researcher — who gave the story seemingly scientific credibility, were the angry parents of autistic children. A strange mix of high emotions and cold scientific language dominated the coverage, obscuring the substance of the matter. Cox and Goldacre both promise that science had the answer. But what does this promise say to the suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry — and by extension, medicine — that Goldacre seems to share? What can it do about the media’s need for ‘scare stories’? It seems, after all, less that science is enjoying a renaissance, but that ‘science’ is simultaneously the expression of a weakening of public discourse and trust, and is given as its remedy. To what extent is the use or abuse of science in the MMR scare or astrology really about science?

Moreover, climate sceptics would recognise Goldacre’s criticism of the media’s use of ‘scare stories’. And this makes Cox’s use of the Great Global Warming Swindle and BBC’s Climate Wars series all the more odd. If the media are drawn to scare stories such as MMR, is it not fair to ask if this phenomenon extends to the media’s coverage of the climate?

To illustrate the expression of bad documentary film-making, Cox points to the Swindle film, to make the argument that a viewer might not have the substance behind the eyes necessary to understand that Durkin’s film was a ‘polemic’. He acknowledges that the film was advertised and introduced as a polemic, but that this is not enough. He seems to want the words ‘POLEMIC’ in flashing red letters, throughout the broadcast.

Durkin’s film was polemic, of course. But Cox doesn’t ever explain what the fault of the film’s polemic was. Was it the solar / cosmic ray theory of cloud-formation? Or was it the argument that climate change is the product of this natural variation? Cox’s objection to TGGWS appears to be that it broke with what he calls the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, misleading the audience who may not be sufficiently well informed to understand that the film was a polemic. Broadcasters and film makers should stick to the peer-reviewed scientific consensus.

But if Cox doesn’t identify precisely what the object of the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ actually is, how can he criticise a ‘polemic’ which seems to contradict it? This blog has, over the past 4 years attracted criticism for the same thing, yet we’ve rarely ever ventured into matters of science. Indeed, our principal argument is that the ‘consensus’ seems to stand for whatever those who wield it claim it stands for. More to the point, we can see as much confusion about what the consensus is from climate scientists, world leaders, and activists as we can see from any group of sceptics. Yet it is only ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’ who are taken to task for taking liberties with the consensus.

There is a further problem here, in that the climate debate divides on another axis, between the argument about whether or not ‘anthropogenic climate change is happening’, and what its consequences are. Within each side of this axis there are competing and contradicting claims, and questions of degree, rather than binary, true-or-false calculations. If, just over a year ago, had you proposed a film to Brian Cox, which took issue with the claims that climate change would massively reduce crop yields in Africa, or that the hundreds of millions of people living beneath the Himalayas face chronic water shortages as a result of glacial recession, you would, in his view, be a ‘maverick’. You would be outside the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. Yet those are the things that this and other blogs have discovered to be false. The implication of Cox’s argument is that such claims should be ignored by broadcasters.

So the notion of a ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ serves to polarise the political and scientific debates. And the unfortunate implication for Cox is that, as long as what you say apparently ‘fits’ the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, you can whittle out any nonsense you wish without incurring the wrath of the ‘scientists’. (And it should be asked again at this point, exactly how representative TGGWS was — as we’ve pointed out before, this bogeyman sticks out of many tens of thousands of hours of programming. It’s hardly typical of contemporary programming, and sits amongst many many hours of green trash.) You can, for instance, claim that a billion people will starve or face drought. You can claim that 150,000 people a year die of climate change. You can then, for no good reason double the estimate to say that 300,000 die of climate change. You can claim that there are just ‘50 days to save the planet’, or you can claim that ‘Obama has just 4 years to save the planet’, or you can claim that there are only ‘100 months to save the planet’.

In other words, you can use the ambiguous ‘peer reviewed scientific consensus’ to construct dramatic stories about catastrophe, and you can use this urgency to develop political arguments with the blessing of ‘science’. And that is precisely what Iain Stewart did for in his series, Climate Wars, which Cox holds up as an example of ‘drawing a clear distinction in the viewers mind, between the peer-reviewed science and his opinion’. In the clip Cox showed, Stewart said:

It would have been lovely to have made a programme about how science had got it all wrong. That actually we’ve got nothing to worry about. But unfortunately it’s the opposite. Most of the climate scientists I talked to are actually genuinely scared by the future. They’re worried that it’s in the nature of the climate to change far faster than we once thought possible. And my feeling is, if they’re scared, so should we be. Because whatever the uncertainties surrounding climate prediction, the fundamental science is pretty clear. We may not know exactly what global warming will bring, but we sure as hell know it’s happening. There’s just no hiding place from that simple fact. And of course what it means for us an our families, well, that’s a different matter. But if I’ve learned one thing in this series, it’s that the stakes are so high, doing nothing simply isn’t an option.

But as we showed here (and here), Stewart’s films took massive liberties with the facts of the climate debate, and even greater liberties with his treatment of the arguments of the ‘sceptics’. For instance, he presented the last 20+ years of debate as one between ‘scientists’ representing an unchanging ‘scientific consensus’ and the usual deniers. This re-wrote history, not only from the perspective of just one side, but also from the present. This ahistoric perspective was owed to the fact that the film is nothing more than a verbatim replication of Naomi Oreskes’s ‘Tobacco Strategy’ thesis. Indeed, Oreskes gets a credit on the film. But it’s nothing more than a conspiracy theory. As we pointed out:

To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between ‘denialist’ arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.

Brian Cox cannot have looked too deeply at the Climate Wars series, because Stewart routinely confuses ‘science’ with opinion. It was, in the words Cox might use, ‘factually total bollocks’, both in its treatment of the scientific arguments, and matters of history and politics. And it’s Cox’s surprisingly fragile understanding of the climate debate and his failure to subject claims about the ‘scientific consensus’ to criticism which causes him to reproduce the same old orthodoxy:

As Iain Stewart says, the consensus is clear. The real controversy is political, and centers on the question ‘what is to be done’. Should we increase tax on oil? Should we not build a third runway at Heathrow? Should we build more nuclear power stations? Or wind turbines? Should we risk damaging our economy in the short term by reducing CO2 emissions quickly? Or should we continue to pursue economic growth at all costs, and seek a more market-oriented solution to climate change? These are complex questions, the answers to which often divide down political lines. But I think Iain Stewart navigates these treacherous waters well, because he remains true to the science, and true to television.

Here, Cox is simply naive. For him, the political debate emerges after the ‘science’, but as this blog argues, there’s plenty of politics prior to the science.

In one sense, the politics is prior in determining what the consequences of climate change are likely to be. In order to understand the material consequences, environmentalists presuppose a fragile nature in ‘balance’. And to understand the human, social consequences of climate change, environmentalists need to presuppose that social phenomena are ‘natural’, such that nothing could ever be done, for instance, to abolish poverty. These points are discussed at length elsewhere on this blog. But there is another sense in which the politics is prior that could do with some exploration here.

As discussed above, science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’ is coincident with moral disorientation at the newsdesk, and a collapse of trust between the public and medicine. Cox identifies that there’s a problem with TV makers responding to the controversies that its audience wants answers to, but appears to say nothing of what this phenomenon arose from. Just as newsdesks can only see the world in terms of scare stories and controversies, so too do today’s political arguments ground themselves on matters of catastrophe.

Cox does this himself:

This means that the most objective and impartial presentation of the so-called contentious story, such as MMR, climate change, astrology, or even the so-called evolution debate should be given significantly more weight to the scientifically peer-reviewed position. Because this will leave the audience with the more truthful view of the current thinking. Now you may see there that I’m redefining what impartiality means. But the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial. To leave the audience with this particular kind of impartial view is desperately important. We’re dealing with the issues of the life and death of our children and the future of our climate. And the way to deal with this is not to be fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase from a famous news outlet, but to report and explain the peer-reviewed scientific consensus accurately.

Cox makes an argument for science, not on the basis of its positive potential for us, but on the same old basis: that we face crises. This is not an argument for science. It’s an appeal for authority.

… the grand challenges of our age such as climate change, and the ever-increasing appetite of our planet’s rapidly expanding population for clean water and energy require scientific and engineering solutions as well as political ones.

Cox is kidding himself. The peer-review process is not, by definition ‘impartial’. For instance, the peer-review process can’t necessarily exclude the possibility that the peer-reviewers are victims of the thinking that Cox is victim to. Does the peer-review process reject claims about the consequences of climate change which don’t give consideration to the degree to which social factors — i.e. poverty — determine the human outcome far more than weather? Or are scientists, just as journalists and politicians are, vulnerable to the idea that catastrophes are merely material events, devoid of any social or historical context? It strikes me that you can do perfectly good science on a flimsy social premise that ‘poverty is natural’, to conclude that climate change will make it worse. But why should this premise have more weight in the debate about climate change than the argument that we could do more by abolishing poverty? Moreover, the view of the climate debate that Cox seems to have is that it simply divides on the question about whether or not ‘climate change is happening’. And the fundamental problem here is that the ensuing arguments confuse the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 and the sensitivity of human society to climate.

My argument on this blog is that this confusion is the presupposition of much climate science that constitutes the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. This is at best a kind of soft-environmentalism, and it’s passed off as the conclusion of climate science. But really, it’s the premise of political environmentalism. The conclusion and premise of much climate research is identical, and never interrogated. This is the major fault not only of environmentalism, but also of science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’.

Scientists, journalists and politicians are all vulnerable to the view that debates about science consist merely of arming the argument about ‘What is to be Done’ with the imperative: ‘Something Must be Done about…’. That is the extent of science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’. In the process, a great number of presuppositions are smuggled in, consciously or not.

To this, Cox might respond (indeed he says it),

Science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature. It is utterly a-populist. Its findings reflect no social or political norms or religious beliefs. In other words, when it comes to the practice of science, the scientists must never have an eye on the audience. For that would be to fatally compromise the process.

‘Science’ as a process may well have no agenda to speak of. But the same cannot be said of science as an institution. Science does not do science; people do science. And as much as the aim may be to produce a value-free investigation of the material world, we see in the climate debate that the issue is muddied. Climate science is no longer merely engaged in an attempt to understand material processes, but becomes the substance of an understanding of how humans relate, and the basis on which far-reaching political institutions are being established. The claim that 150,000 people die each year from climate change, for instance, to form the basis of a projection and a call for action, must presuppose that there is nothing that can be done to abolish poverty. In other words, climate science begins to explain the existence of poverty in the world: it’s the result of a degraded environment. The more general expression of this problem is the ‘naturalisation’ of social problems and phenomena.

The problem becomes clearer in a statement Cox makes near the start of his presentation:

I think the best way to illustrate these occasional incompatibilities is to first define what science is. Now this is not easy in a historical context, because to put it bluntly, vast amounts of drivel have been written about the subject by armies of postmodernist philosophers and journalists. But I’m going to ignore all this, because I concur absolutely with the quote attributed to the Nobel-prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman. He said the philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornothology is to birds. To my mind, science is very simple indeed. Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe. Now as long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is a statement of the obvious. See everything we take for granted in the modern world, from atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging, is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it.

‘Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe.’ Of course it is, with two important caveats. First, that material science is the framework for understanding the material world. Second, that this first caveat must imply some method which makes it possible to identify whether science is attempting to study something material, or something that is better understood or studied through social science.

Cox is nearly onto something when he says that postmodern philosophy confounds the definition of ‘science’. But he perhaps forgets what it also did to the study of the human realm. If we take ‘postmodernism’ to mean some radical form of relativism, which reduces ‘science’ to nothing more than ‘just another belief system’, this also reduces the social sciences and humanities to meaningless narratives. The effect of postmodernism on the understanding of the human world was far more devastating. The escape from postmodern relativism has been to locate authority not in human-centric ideas, values, or principles, but to ground it in what appears to be objectivity… ‘Science says…’ This really does turn ‘science’ into ‘just another narrative’, because it now starts to become an encompassing framework, from which claims are made about the non-material world. It starts to explain poverty as a natural phenomenon. It starts to explain the right and the wrong in material terms of ‘true and false’. It starts to connect humans through material phenomena. ‘Climate change’ begins to explain social phenomena; it measures the ‘ethics’ of our behaviour; it determines what form of social organisation is best, and how people should relate…

That is the reality of ‘science’s cultural and political renaissance’. Science becomes far more than a value free investigation of the material world, and starts, in Cox’s own words,

…to draw profound conclusions about our responsibility to ourselves, our planet, and ultimately the cosmos itself.

This is no longer ‘objectivity’. And when it turns out that the institutions of science don’t engender the respect and authority that Cox believes they deserve, he has only one answer: more scientism. The reality is that people are suspicious of the MMR jab and people believe in astrology, not because they are mislead, but because it takes more than sheer wonder at the universe to create trust in political, social, and scientific institutions.

Cancun: scavenging around for scientific fact

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Conventional climate wisdom has it that once ‘the science’ is put before politics, politicians will respond to the imperative to save us from Gaia’s revenge. So each year, representatives from each country that has signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) assemble to turn it into an agreement to limit CO2 emissions.

But science is a slow process; politics happens much faster. In the rush to get the most recent research under the noses of policymakers, those engaged in the climate debate show that climate politics exists before climate science has even got its thermometer out.

The problem for those seeking a deal at this year’s Cancun COP meeting (Convention of Parties [to the UNFCC]) has been that the climate change debate has changed. The COP15 meeting in Copenhagen was a disaster. It revealed disagreement about how best to respond to the science, and showed that the ostensible desire to save the planet barely conceals the same ruthless agendas which have always dominated global politics. The ‘Climategate’ emails revealed that scientists are as human as the rest of us. And just to prove it, the IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri branded as ‘voodoo science’ any criticism of the mainstream view of climate change and its consequences. But the criticisms turned out to be valid. More troubling still, the rate at which the world was warming seems to have slowed considerably, leading sceptics to ask whether global warming is still happening.

The trouble with evidence-based policymaking is that, when doubt about the evidence emerges, the policymaking grinds to a halt. In order to continue with the creation of environmental bureaucracies and political institutions, fresh certainty has to be supplied. As the talks in Cancun opened, so ‘new’ evidence emerged from two of the UK’s biggest climate-research organisations, the Tyndall Centre and the Met Office, amidst a flurry of headlines.

‘World is warming quicker than thought in past decade, says Met Office’, reported Damian Carrington in the Guardian. This spoke to the sceptics who had argued that there had been no significant warming. According to Carrington, the Met Office had discovered that a change in the way sea surface temperatures were measured introduced a cool bias. This was significant, said Carrington, ‘because the rate of global warming from 2000-2009 is lower than the 0.16C per decade trend seen since the late 1970s […] the warming rate for the past 10 years is estimated at 0.08-0.16C’. Global warming alarmists could breathe a sigh of relief; the world was doomed after all.

But other newspapers reported the story differently. ‘Global warming has slowed down over the past 10 years, say scientists’, said the Daily Mail. ‘Global warming has slowed because of pollution’, said the Telegraph.

The reality was that the scientists involved didn’t know whether the rate of the world’s temperature rise had increased, decreased or stayed the same. Nor did they know what the causes of its change were. But there was evidence of less warming. The Met Office’s own data suggested that the last decade had seen temperatures rise by 0.05 degrees Celsius. This is significantly less than the 0.16 degrees rise per decade seen since the end of the 1970s. However, the research by NASA GISS suggested a rise of 0.13 degrees. The Met Office held a briefing for the press to explain that the reduction in warming might be natural variation, or could be accounted for by a mixture of a decrease in stratospheric water vapour and the cooling bias introduced by new methodology. It might even be pollution. What they were sure of, however, was that climate change was still happening, but that 0.08 degrees of climate change had gone missing. In the words of Chris Morris, ‘there’s no evidence for it, but it is a scientific fact’; the world was still warming really.

The Met Office’s new claims were all published in a brochure produced for the Cancun climate talks called Evidence: the state of the climate. The introduction of the report declares that ‘Controversy over this past year has led some to question the evidence for climate change and man’s involvement in that change. In fact, the evidence of a rapid long-term change in climate, driven by mankind’s activities, is becoming even stronger.’

This defensive posture owed much less to the emergence of new science than to doubt about the old. The Met Office used other indicators to demonstrate the continued influence of humanity upon the climate, while explaining that the decreased rate of warming remained ‘entirely consistent with predicted man-made climate change’. But is ‘consistent with’ the same as ‘not inconsistent with’? A decrease in the rate of warming is also ‘entirely consistent with’ the idea that humans aren’t causing climate change. What the Met Office means is that the last decade’s reduced rate of warming doesn’t yet challenge predictions. The science is simply uncertain.

The Met Office has since released yet another analysis – Risks of Dangerous Climate Change. This report compares the predictions made in 2007 to the Met Office work since the 2007 IPCC (AR4) report. On the matter of sea level rise, it turns out that new science gives reasons to be both alarmed and relieved.

This has led, predictably, to conflicting headlines. ‘Alarmist Doomsday warning of rising seas “was wrong”, says Met Office study’, says the Daily Mail. ‘Met Office halves “worst case” sea level prediction’, says the Telegraph. Ignoring the good news about sea levels, ‘We must take climate change more seriously warn Met Office scientists’, says the Scotsman. Climate change threat to tropical forests ‘greater than suspected’, says John Vidal in the Guardian.

‘The evidence of the dangerous impact of climate change is clearer than ever’, said Vicky Pope, head of Hadley’s climate predictions programme. ‘New understanding of the science suggests the overall impact will be about the same [but] in some cases, like the risk of methane release from wetlands and permafrost melting, [we] now conclude that the risks are greater.’

But the ‘dangerous impact of climate change’ simply isn’t getting clearer. It’s not merely evidence of ‘increased rates of warming’ that is in short supply; there is no visible effect of climate change on human society. There is no marked increase in storm intensity or frequency; there is no climate change signature on insurance claims. Any increase in humanity’s vulnerability to nature could be far more easily explained as first-order effects of poverty than by Nth-order effects of climate change.

That’s not to say that ‘climate change isn’t happening’, nor to suggest that it won’t be a problem. However, the alarmist narrative which created the basis for international climate policy has exhausted itself. By over-stating things in the past, it created the conditions for its later embarrassment. In order to sustain the political momentum, science has had to do PR. And the effects are all too plain. Few of the many claims in either of the Met Office’s reports cite any ‘peer-reviewed’ scientific literature, and therefore stand only as statements of opinion, not of science. I asked the Met Office about the confused messages that they seemed to be delivering. A press officer told me that the papers had got the stories broadly right, and the differences between the headlines reflected different editorial agendas.

Actually it reflects more than editorial agendas.The problem is the broader expectation that science can be instructive; that ‘what to do about climate change’ can be simply read off from clear scientific evidence. The evidence isn’t clear. It is contradictory. It changes. Science is confused by the political demand for certainty, for the true story. Thus any new study or review of the science creates a narrative about the future which is either ‘worse than previously thought’ or lends credibility to the sceptic’s arguments. The entire UNFCCC process is not unlike 24-hour live rolling coverage of a natural disaster. The same scenarios are endlessly repeated while news anchors and pundits speculate wildly about the significance of the latest images drip-fed into lifeless depictions of carnage. There is no story… but there might be one, at any moment… Stay tuned.

Science and policymaking are imitating the news. Rather than waiting for genuine scientific development, scientific organisations engaged in the policymaking process produce summaries of the latest speculation on demand. This speculation is intended to add urgency to the process by defeating the doubt that besets the policymaking. But it does so at the expense of a sober understanding of the climate and our relationship to it. This is acceptable under the rubric of the precautionary principle, which allows policymakers to aim to be safe rather than sorry by accepting approximations of ‘science’ in lieu of certainty. But this reveals that science – as an institution, rather than a process – is much less involved in discovery than in supplying climate politics and its bureaucracies with legitimacy.

What the greens really got wrong

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Environmentalists have long claimed that their desire to save the world has been thwarted by conspiracies of Big Oil and right-wing think-tanks. Channel 4’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong (watch it here) showed signs that some environmentalists are at last beginning to take responsibility for their failures. But does it tell us anything we didn’t already know, and will the new environmentalists be so different from the old?

The main thrust of the film is that, by opposing GM, nuclear power, and DDT, environmentalists have damaged the chances of a solution to climate change and have done serious harm to poorer people and their own public image. Critics have been arguing this for environmentalism’s entire history, of course. But it is interesting to see some sober reflection on green failure nonetheless. Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (see a review of the book here), speaks candidly about how his objection to GM ‘wasn’t a science-based rational thing. It was an emotional thing and it was about the relation between humans and other living things’. Since Lynas ‘came out’ in favour of nuclear power, he has found himself on the receiving end of the self-righteousness he once meted out to others.

Although it is interesting to see one-time activists reflecting in this way, the reformulation of environmentalism doesn’t really address the problems with its initial perspective. The arguments in the film don’t form a criticism of environmentalism as an instance of the politics of fear, but merely moderate some of its excesses. There is an interesting discussion about the shortcomings of the precautionary principle, and the film’s participants are far more circumspect about risk from certain technologies than they have been in the past.

But these risks are merely seen in contrast to the ultimate catastrophe: climate change. Technologies are not considered in terms of their potential for humans, but are embraced reluctantly as solutions to climate change. Genetically modified (GM) food is sold seemingly only on the basis that it is a means to begrudgingly feed the poor. The limitations of the catastrophic narrative still are such that they constrain discussion about progress beyond subsistence.

The new environmentalists’ point is that the environmental movement failed to protect the environment. So the tension between development and environment still haunts the debate, rather than being exorcised from it. And this is the film’s major shortcoming. The real claim of environmentalism – its ethics – is not merely that we must protect the environment, but that we should live within environmental limits.

This is explored only briefly in the film, by reference to Paul Ehrlich who, in the late 60s, attempted to give these limits numerical substance. Ehrlich predicted dire consequences, but the resource depletion, mass famine and economic collapse he saw in his calculations failed to materialise. Undaunted, the environmental movement merely deferred the date of eco-tastrophe further into the future, and made an ethic out of life within presumed environmental limits – ‘sustainability’. The result has been the tendency of the environmental movement to produce ideas which are hostile to technological development and appear to be anti-human in consequence. But this character of environmentalism is only superficially explored in the film.

This shallow treatment of environmentalism’s substance resulted in a heated but ultimately futile studio debate broadcast after the film. In this exchange, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, Greenpeace’s token scientist Doug Parr, and Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth (FoE) criticised the film for what they saw as it’s preoccupation with technology as the means to overcome these limits. ‘You can’t look at technology in ideological isolation’, said Bennett, insisting that FoE have a ‘pragmatic rather than ideological approach to technology’. Monbiot claimed that this was the most ‘ideological film I’ve ever seen on television’. Each side now accused each other of ‘ideology’, while claiming science and pragmatism for themselves.

However, this kind of ‘pragmatism’ has long been a feature of the environmental movement. For instance, in 2004, Lynas declared that ‘[t]he struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere’. In 2008, Monbiot seemed to agree, arguing that the eco-anarcho-socialists gathered at Climate Camp were undermining themselves: ‘Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim’, he said.

It is this claim about ‘pragmatism’ that allows environmentalists to smuggle their own ‘ideology’ into such debates under the cover of ‘science’. And it was only ever a clash between two groups of environmentalists – rather than criticism from without – that would finally expose the tendency of ‘pragmatism’ to produce its own crises. The same ‘science’ seems to produce different arguments, and here lies the biggest mystery about the greens. ‘Where’s the cohesion of the new environmentalists?’, asked Doug Parr; there is no new environmental movement, he pointed out.

In fact, there never really has been an environmental movement, full stop. Environmentalism has been a loud and bizarre spectacle of UK politics, but it has never moved more than a handful of people out onto the streets at any one time. It has never achieved sufficient numbers to count as a political force. And there has been no cohesive environmental philosophy. Instead, as Lynas admits, environmentalists were united, not by science, but by their emotional rejection of contemporary society.

As with most criticism of environmentalism, it is often the reaction to it that reveals more than the criticism itself. Monbiot replies that the movement was unsuccessful, not because it failed to capture the minds of the public, but because ‘we are massively out-spent by corporate-funded movements which have had hundreds of millions poured into them telling government and the media there isn’t a problem’, a claim which surely ignores the UK and EU governments’ environmental policies. He complains that Channel 4 has ‘broadcast a series of polemics about the environment… over the last 20 years’. But the three films he’s talking about – Against Nature, The Great Global Warming Swindle and What the Green Movement Got Wrong – occupied no more than six hours of two decades of near continuous broadcasting. What environmentalists lack in terms of a sense of proportion, they make up for with a sense of persecution.

What Lynas has realised, and Monbiot has not, is that ‘sceptics’ did not undermine the environmentalists’ cause. Environmentalists were their own worst enemy. They have alienated the rest of society by their own uncompromising and misanthropic outlook. The challenge for the new environmentalists is to emerge from this crisis of their own making into an era of growing scepticism, while keeping an eye on the consequences of their arguments. But without the precautionary principle, alarmism, doom and catastrophe, and premature claims to scientific certainty, what is environmentalism?