<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12981/</em>
In his speech to the Labour Party Conference earlier this month, leader Ed Miliband declared he was going to ‘do something different today’, to ‘tell you my story. I want to tell you who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country.’ Such self-conscious attempts to give identity to hollow political leaders of tired political parties in empty political contests are now a ritual in British politics.
Every political leader in recent years has overstated his vision as a new vital force. Yet each attempt to do so belies the narrowing of political discourse, the hollowing out of ideas, and the terminal vacuity of today’s political poseurs. The spectacle of Miliband delivering a personal statement was nothing new at all. Like many political leaders before him, he was forced to talk about himself because he had nothing else to say.
Miliband is not the only leader to have emphasised his humble origins to claim that it gives him insight into a divided Britain. Nor is he the first to try to revive Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idea of One Nation politics. John Major also sought to reverse the Conservative Party’s decline by reinventing Disraeli, claiming in 1996: ‘Decent homes, rewarding jobs, a good education, shares, quality of life. Giving more people those opportunities is what One Nation Conservatism is all about.’ Five years earlier, and just prior to an unexpected election victory that produced a government hobbled by constant in-fighting, he, like Miliband now, paraded his humble roots. For Major, that meant Brixton and grammar school rather than Miliband’s Hampstead and a comprehensive school, as this 1992 Conservative Party campaign video shows.
The two fundamentals of Miliband’s speech are the same as Major’s. Twenty years separate them, but both consciously eschew the socialism that we might imagine their backgrounds would make them sympathetic to. Both claim that their origins give them insight that people from more privileged backgrounds cannot develop. Both claim to be able to unite Britain. And both emphasise merely basic educational standards as the means to economic recovery. Miliband wants to offer ‘that 14-year-old who is not academic’ a ‘gold-standard vocational qualification, a new Technical Baccalaureate’, which is ‘a qualification to be proud of’. It is as if nobody had thought of it before. Yet Major said in 1996: ‘Some children will choose to learn vocational skills. I’ve had enough of people who look down on those children and treat them as second best… So practical skills are being put on an equal footing with academic subjects… The old divide between universities and polytechnics has gone.’
The observation that very little separates political leaders is not new, of course. But the motifs repeated over the past three decades of Britain’s political history are stark, and begin to offer a clue as to what might be going on.
At the Conservative Party conference in 2009, David Cameron’s Big Society idea was being hatched. He would put ‘Broken Britain’, he said, ‘back on her feet’: ‘Do you know the worst thing about their big government?’, he asked of New Labour. ‘It’s not the cost, though that’s bad enough. It is the steady erosion of responsibility. Our task is to lead Britain in a completely different direction.’
But the idea that the state had deprived people of ‘responsibility’ was something Tony Blair, of New Labour, had emphasised just five years earlier. In 2004, he announced a strategy that he claimed was ‘the culmination of a journey of change both for progressive politics and for the country.’ He added: ‘It marks the end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order… It was John Stuart Mill who articulated the modern concept that with freedom comes responsibility. But in the 1960s revolution, that didn’t always happen… Here, now, today, people have had enough of this part of the 1960s consensus…. That is the new consensus on law and order for our times.’
Even that was hardly new, though. At the Conservative Party conference more than a decade earlier, John Major had taken issue with people who believed that ‘criminal behaviour was society’s fault, not the individual’s’. Major, too, emphasised responsibility: ‘Do you know, the truth is, much as things have changed on the surface, underneath we’re still the same people. The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain… It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.’
But even a decade before Major’s speech, Margaret Thatchertold political interviewer Brian Walden: ‘I think we went through a period when too many people began to expect their standard of living to be guaranteed by the state, and so great protest movements came that you could, by having sufficient protests, sufficient demonstrations against government, get somehow a larger share for yourself, and they looked to the protest and the demonstrations and the strikes to get a bigger share for them, but it always had to come from the people who really strived to do more and to do better. I want to see one nation, as you go back to Victorian times, but I want everyone to have their own personal property stake.’
For Thatcher, ‘one nation’ meant harking back to Victorian Values. Major similarly sought to get us Back to Basics. Blair thought that this could be achieved through his Respect Agenda. Cameron ordered the creation of the Big Society. Each leader promised that they could encourage personal responsibility, which would in turn transform British culture, end dependence on the welfare state, and reverse economic woes.
In spite of such ambitions, however, governments have found it increasingly difficult to let people actually take responsibility for themselves. The welfare state has not diminished, and endless policy initiatives find new ways to intrude on private life. As early as 1997, the then Labour government conceived of a ‘Quality of Life Barometer’, which would measure the government’s performance in improving individuals’ subjective sense of wellbeing – a project now more fully realised by the Lib-Con coalition’s Happiness Index. Political leaders who emphasise personal responsibility don’t even trust the people to look after their own emotional lives, let alone smoke or drink in public or find their way out of dependency on benefits.
Miliband’s grand projet – One Nation – doesn’t even bother to rebrand the nineteenth-century idea with a new name. Nor does he even attempt to give it substance. Instead, he merely offers a list of grievances, attached to his personal history. ‘That is who I am. That is what I believe. That is my faith’, he urges.
Today’s politicians have become increasingly hollow pastiches of their predecessors, echoes of long-passed political moments that ring around a public space as empty as the vision of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Unable to conceive of new political ideas, they recycle a diminishing pool of insipid slogans that they wave at the country’s very real problems. The constant refrain of ‘One Nation’, ‘personal responsibility’, ‘sense of wellbeing’, ‘rebuilding Britain’ and the rest belies the paucity of ideas about actual development. Instead of building things like roads, industry and homes, modern leaders emphasise instead restraint, austerity, and external crises that are beyond our control – the global economic crisis, climate change and terrorism – which might let them off the hook.
Instead of answering the question ‘Who am I?’, the answer to which may be spun and invented to suit any given moment, it would be far better if politicians answered a far more difficult question: ‘What will I do?’ The fact that they have no new answers to that question is the real message of the party-conference season.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/11068/</em>
The growth of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over the past 50 years has been extraordinary. Starting from humble beginnings and means, organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which are both celebrating their fortieth anniversaries this year, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), which opened its first office 50 years ago, now command budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. But while the organic champagne may be flowing in the green camp, what does the rest of the world have to celebrate about the rise and rise of the Big Green NGO?
Greenpeace emerged when tensions between East and West dominated global politics. In September 1971, a boat full of activists set out from Vancouver in Canada to interrupt a US nuclear weapons test. A founding member of Greenpeace told the world: ‘We call our ship the Greenpeace because that’s the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world… We do not consider ourselves to be radicals. We are conservatives, who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations.’
The first Greenpeace mission failed to stop the escalation of the arms race, but it gave the organisation its trademark style of direct action. Big-scale stunts would ensure media attention for decades to come, but they also epitomised environmentalists’ shrill and uncompromising tone. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, NGOs grew in prominence and number, but it wasn’t until the Cold War drew to a close that NGOs really became global players.
Some have sought to explain the ascendency of the NGO as the regrouping of various left agendas after the disintegration of communism. Founding member turned critic of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, fuels this perception, claiming that ‘pro-Soviet groups in the West were discredited’, thus they ‘moved into the environmental movement bringing with them their eco-Marxism and pro-Sandinista sentiments’. While there may be some truth to this claim, its significance is questionable. Moore seems to forget that his erstwhile comrades had identified themselves as ‘conservatives’. There were few organisations or individuals in the USSR, never mind in the West, that could be accurately described as ‘pro-Soviet’ at the time.
Moreover, environmental issues had been established on the international agenda long before the collapse of communism. Former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland began compiling her UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report in 1983. Our Common Future, published in 1987, became the blueprint for ‘sustainable development’ and proposed the ‘marriage of economy and ecology’. The NGOs we know today are the chimera produced by this ugly union.
Brundtland noted that NGOs had ‘played a major part in the environmental movement’ and were pioneers ‘in the creation of public awareness and political pressures that stimulated governments to act’. Accordingly, she saw in NGOs the potential to drive the sustainability agenda, in spite of public and governmental indifference. NGOs should be better funded and given access ‘to participate in decision-making’. They could ‘provide an efficient and effective alternative to public agencies’, in both the design and delivery of international and national policies.
Brundtland preferred that undemocratic and unaccountable NGOs keep national governments in check. They were handed the kind of tasks that the voting public might have once been expected to decide on through the ballot box. Concerns about ‘eco-Marxists’ or the left generally gaining power through the backdoor not only miss the point of Brundtland’s contempt for democratic politics – they also miss the real context of the NGOs’ ascendency: a post-political (or ‘post-ideological’) era.
Far from pitching governments against NGOs, this mode of politics has come to the rescue of politicians. In an era when suspicion of ‘ideology’ and of the public abounds, political leaders have been eager to prove their sympathy to the causes embraced by NGOs. Here, for instance, is David Cameron – then the opposition leader in the UK – holding a press conference about his energy policy at Greenpeace’s London offices.
It would be a mistake to imagine that the Brundtland report was the singular cause of the elevation of NGOs and the decline of democratic politics. But Brundtland nonetheless epitomises the desire for an organising basis for political institutions that transcends ‘ideology’. Soviet tyranny had come to an end, but so had faith in the idea that liberal democracies could be sustained by popular mandate. Scientists, with their immunity from ideology guaranteed by the objectivity of science, and NGOs, with their unimpeachable moral perspective, would determine the priorities that ought to drive policy and rescue the political establishment from its disorientation and disconnectedness.
Far from transcending ideology, however, the compact between institutions of power and NGOs created a new kind of politics, as revealed in their treatment of the issues they claim to be concerned with. With regards to the depletion of fish stocks, for instance, Greenpeace emphasises the need for regulation and the creation of international agreements and agencies to prevent over-fishing. But, as Rob Lyons has argued previously on spiked, a more sensible approach would be to find better ways of producing fish for ourselves, rather than depending on nature to produce limited amounts. The sustainability agenda, however, does not permit our independence from natural processes. After all, overcoming natural limits would deprive the arrangement between NGOs and the state of its moral basis: the limits of the natural world become the organising principle of the human world, as though the facts themselves had spoken to us and told us how to live.
But facts do not speak to us. They are interpreted through prejudices and are coloured by harrowing images of ecological degradation and suffering – the NGO’s primary mode of advancing its agenda. The NGOs’ mode of engagement is confined to the realm of emotions. Donating assuages individual guilt, and by hitching themselves to the NGO, otherwise redundant politicians hope to demonstrate that they are responding to the world’s problems. It is all very ‘ethical’ – if ethics is about nothing more than mere gestures intended to convey the existence of a moral conscience – but there is little discussion about what kind of world the NGOs and the UN’s approach to development is striving to create: in other words, the politics remains obscured. NGOs turn naive sympathy and emotional self-indulgence into political power.
This is seen most acutely where development and environmental agendas converge. In the West, and in wealthier countries, NGOs’ influence over the political agenda is mediated, of course. But where economies and political systems are less robust, the NGOs’ power is greater. On the basis that pastoral societies are ‘sustainable’, development and aid NGO Oxfam has determined that it should campaign for the preservation of ‘traditional society’ in the developing world. Oxfam’s head of research, Duncan Green, recently argued that, despite there being no obvious connection between climate change and the drought in the Horn of Africa, ‘smallholder agriculture and pastoralism… have shown they can provide a decent life for millions of east Africans’.
In 2008, a paper published by Oxfam about the virtues of pastoral society revealed the organisation’s limited faith in the possibilities of development. ‘Forward-looking traditionalists’, it said, could enjoy the fruits of modern industrial society, but only to the extent that ‘satellite and mobile phones would enable herders to check on market prices or disease outbreaks’. Never mind the ambitions that any person enduring life in ‘pastoral society’ might have about accessing communications technology like the rest of us do; Oxfam has decided his interests are best served by a lifestyle that no Oxfam worker in the UK would tolerate at home.
It is difficult to estimate the actual power that NGOs wield. There is no adequate definition of an NGO, no formal or legal definition of their relationship with official power. Nonetheless, Greenpeace, which claims to have 2.9million supporters around the world, has had an indubitable influence over the remaining 99.96 per cent of the world’s population. The Greenpeace website boasts about victories over plans to build airports, dams, mines, oil wells, factories and power stations, and in securing national and international regulation or bans on chemicals and industrial processes, fishing, the disposal of toxic substances, the exploitation of natural wilderness, genetically modified crop production and experimentation, and so on.
Green NGOs have assumed increasingly political roles, as para-governmental agencies, as PR campaign agencies for government and intergovernmental institutions and their policies, as outsourced research and lobbying outfits, and by assuming to be ‘above’ politics. Literally, in the case of this rooftop protest at the Palace of Westminster:
NGOs – unaccountable, undemocratic, unchecked and self-appointed organisations – occupy space created by the political establishment’s increasing distance from the public. However, they do nothing to bring either national or global politics closer to us. In fact, they make it more remote. There is no formal way to challenge the influence, agenda or ideas of NGOs. They claim to best represent the facts, the issues the world faces, and to represent ‘stakeholders’ and the ‘voiceless’, but have begun to displace the public from politics. Hence we see them straddling the Houses of Parliament, demanding that MPs ‘change the politics’. But nobody ever voted for Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth or Oxfam.
NGOs seem to have been established to challenge the problems the world faces and their influence is legitimised on that basis. In reality, they have ended up securing the foundations of existing political institutions, helping them appear responsive to ‘the issues’ while bypassing the will of the voting public. NGOs have escaped criticism because to take issue with them is equated to taking issue with polar bears, starving babies, trees and other voiceless ‘stakeholders’. However, these only serve as a fig leaf, behind which the politics really were changed, just as Greenpeace demanded.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/8057</em>
The account of the climate debate that has driven most comment on it is that it is a debate between two camps: scientists on the one hand battle sceptics on the other. This misconception is the basis from which more mythology about the debate develops: scientists are united by a consensus, are of unimpeachable character and the science is unequivocal; sceptics are financed by oil interests, motivated by ‘ideology’ and are ‘anti-science’. But reactions to an incautiously worded press release announcing the discovery of an ‘unprecedented’ melting of Greenland’s ice sheet reveals that this understanding of the climate debate is deeply flawed. Nobody involved has a monopoly on science abuse or questionable motivations.
‘Satellites see Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Melt’,announced a press release on 24 July from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institution of Technology. Satellites that constantly scan environmental conditions on the planet’s surface had revealed that from 8 July to 12 July, 97 per cent of the surface of the ice sheet contained water rather than ice, whereas typically just 45 per cent of the surface area melts at this time of year. The extent of this melt is not in itself significant – just millimetres on top of an ice sheet that is 3.5 kilometres thick at its deepest point, most of which soon refreezes.
In spite of the headline, the press release itself went on to explain how the ‘unprecedented’ extent of surface ice melt wasn’t, in fact, unprecedented. ‘Ice cores from Summit [a central Greenland station] show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time’, said Lora Koenig, a NASA researcher involved in the analysis of the satellite data.
In plain sight of the fact that the melting was neither unexpected nor unprecedented, environmental journalists the world over picked up the story and ran with it. In theGuardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, wrote: ‘The Greenland ice sheet melted at a faster rate this month than at any other time in recorded history, with virtually the entire ice sheet showing signs of thaw.’
As I have noted elsewhere, Guardian journalists have a fetish for stories about melting ice. In September last year, following an unusually low measurement of Arctic sea-ice extent, Damian Carrington wrote: ‘Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity.’ But the low measurement of sea ice that Carrington pointed to disagreed with at least five other continuous measurements of the Arctic, and was thus unreliable. This kind of overreaction to scientific developments is a facile attempt to turn science into stories of political intrigue. When images of the Arctic taken by US spy satellites were declassified in 2009, the headline of an article by Goldenberg and Carrington proclaimed that ‘the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide’ had been ‘revealed’.
The rash of excited articles about the dying cryosphere caused some surprising corrective responses from voices within climate research. Malte Humpert from the Arctic Institute Centre wrote a stinging response to the headline histrionics. ‘The Greenland ice sheet, which is up to 3000+ metres thick, is not “melting away”, did not “melt in four days”, it is not “melting fast”, and Greenland did not “lose 97 per cent of its surface ice layer”.’ Humpert continued: ‘Most articles also exaggerated the importance of the melt event on global sea levels by explaining how sea levels would rise by up to 7.2 metres if the ice sheet were to melt.’
Similarly, Mark Brandon, a sea-ice scientist at the Open University, reproduced an interesting series of tweets and links to articles that showed the development of the current panic about ice, beginning with (alleged) comedian Marcus Brigstocke’s misconception of the story. To Brigstocke, an ‘unprecedented’ melt was the proverbial canary in the coal mine – a harbinger of doom. But as Brandon and his colleagues pointed out, it was a bit soon to be calling time on the human race. This was just weather.
Although it is good to see scientists engaging critically with climate alarmism, such corrections seem to have limited potential. Although climate activists and politicians have emphasised the scientific consensus on climate change, their alarmism has found its expression in the public sphere after press releases announcing scientific claims. These press-released stories often turn out to be based not on research, but on opinion or guesswork. For instance, in 2007, when Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since 1979, a rash of speculation followed about when the ice might disappear altogether. In 2008, the Observer happily reported that 2013 would be the date of the ice cap’s demise, according to just one researcher’s claim.
But this turned out to be mere guesswork, as did other estimates of the future of Arctic sea ice, which put the date of disappearance much further into the future. The fact of this speculation was lost by journalists emphasising the scientific credentials of those doing the guessing; it was guesswork, but it was scientists’ guesswork.
Science has not put a stop to climate alarmism. The dynamics of the most barren and lifeless parts of the planet have become the ground on which the climate wars have been fought. And each ‘unprecedented’ move of any glacier, iceberg or sea ice becomes a moment of significance, seemingly telling us our future. Far from being scientific, prognosticating about the future of the world on the basis of the progress of ice is like reading frog entrails.
So what has science got to say about such fortune-telling, and what can it achieve? I asked Mark Brandon about what had moved him to write his corrective of the stories that followed NASA’s press release. ‘When I talk to people who don’t really know about polar science, they look at that picture of Greenland covered in red, and they think the whole ice sheet is melting’, says Brandon. ‘This isn’t a story about sea-level rise. But that is how virtually everyone has presented it. And that is how almost everyone has interpreted it as well.’
Brandon is keen to emphasise that this doesn’t mean that Arctic ice is not melting or that such melting is not a problem. Rather, he argues that overstating the problem is not helpful. ‘I don’t think many of these stories make much sense in isolation… If you view things in isolation then geographically it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense from a climate point of view, which is what I [and other scientists] were trying to say. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s melting. I think it is. But it’s going for the headline. It’s an easy media thing. It’s a weather event. The temperature [in Greenland] only reached over zero for a few days. It would be the equivalent of a weather event going over Britain.’
If Brandon’s caution reflects the consensus position on climate science, it seems to be out-of-kilter with the wider public discussion about the climate. Endless stories about glaciers melting, polar bears, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and sea ice form the view that there is virtually no ice left on the surface of the planet. And there is no doubting the influence of such alarmism. Just prior to the 2009 COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen, then UK prime minister Gordon Brown told the world: ‘We should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue. Only last week, we saw new evidence of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice… And in just twenty-five years, the glaciers in the Himalayas which provide water for three-quarters of a billion people could disappear entirely… And the recent report of the Global Humanitarian Forum led by Kofi Annan suggests that… effects of climate change are already killing 300,000 people… and the total will rise to half a million each year by 2030’.
What was striking about Brown’s claims is that they owed nothing to science at all, let alone to the scientific consensus. Instead, the claims had come from the Caitlin mission to the Arctic – a PR and media stunt designed to highlight the shrinking of the Arctic – and from the Global Humanitarian Forum’s crude estimate of the effects of climate on poorer parts of the world that had emphasised climate, rather than lack of wealth, as the fundamental in the condition of the world’s poor.
Ironically, the deep cold of the Arctic caused the Caitlin’s equipment to fail, and ultimately the hostile weather meant the team had to be rescued. The Global Humanitarian Forum folded before the World Health Organisation’s recent announcement that incidences of malaria – one of the diseases the GHF predicted would increase with global warming – had fallen dramatically since 2000.
What most frustrates climate sceptics is the persistence of such junk science in the public and policy debates. Those who point out the problems of making arguments for policy on the back of PR stunts and junk science are labelled as ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’, motivated by profit, ‘ideology’ or simple bad-mindedness rather than the desire for a sensible debate about our relationship with the natural environment and concern about development. Brown’s errors are passed over with little criticism from science. But how to account for such errors in the first place?
One problem, says Brandon, is that a clear view of science is precluded by the expectations weighing on scientists, who may be reluctant to enter a fierce debate. He imagines a case of a researcher producing work that explained where climate models are going wrong: ‘If he or she stood up and talked to a journalist, that very good research intended to improve the models could have her work framed as saying that climate models are garbage, therefore the Arctic isn’t warming.’ In other words, in a highly polarised debate, scientific developments are taken to be decisive. Mistakes in computer models are taken to be the final word on the paucity of evidence of manmade climate change, and an anomalous measurement of Greenland’s ice sheet spells the end of the world.
Another problem is that journalists and policymakers simply do not understand the context of research. Brandon compares a lay reading of climate science to an attempt to read a Jane Austen novel at face value. Without historical knowledge of the grammatical nuances and peculiarities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society, the significance of events in Austen’s plots may be lost on the reader, and the motivations of the characters so much harder to fathom. And so it is with climate science: the caveats, context and cautions scientists attach to their work are forgotten by excited journalists who report it and who furthermore forget their roles as critics of authority, be it political or scientific.
The loss of scientific context does something to explain how the significance of scientific research is amplified by stories which cover them. But there is a wider context to scientific research – especially climate research – which a view of the deficit between scientists and journalists does not capture. After all, some scientists are involved to some extent in the creation of dramatic stories about the melting of ice and the peddling of alarm in the media. Following the NASA story, Edward Hannah, reader in climate change at the University of Sheffield, wrote in the Guardian that ‘the Greenland ice sheet is living on borrowed time’, and that ‘tens of centimetres’ of sea-level rise ‘would make many coastal communities more vulnerable to flooding and storm surges’. Such a conclusion had nothing to do with the story at hand and presupposed that it was beyond the means and minds of ‘coastal communities’ a century hence to move themselves away from the shore or build coastal protection.
It is this historical illiteracy that afflicts scientists as much as it moves journalists to promote alarmist interpretations of press releases from climate science – of which they are equally illiterate. Climate change excites the imaginations of individuals – journalists and scientists included – who labour under a narrative of humanity’s close relationship with nature. On this view, ‘coastal communities’ are incapable of responding to changing circumstances, even over the course of centuries. Thus a theoretical problem that may emerge thousands of years into the future becomes an immediate danger that can only be dealt with now, and in the way preferred by the alarmist narrative: ceasing the industrial and economic progress that would afford those coastal communities a better way of life, as well as better protection from the elements. An insidious and self-fulfilling prophecy turns the observation of an unremarkable melting of a few millimetres of ice into a story about several miles of melted ice, and metres of sea-level rise.
A belief persists that is possible strictly to set the boundaries of politics and science, such that science can issue politics with imperatives on the basis of what it detects in the material world. But clearly, the poorly conceived environmental narrative and pseudoscientific factoids persist across both science and politics. The damage done by the characterisation of the debate as one between scientists and sceptics, and the view of science and politics as easily delineated processes, is that progress is made in neither politics nor science. Even correcting the excesses of environmental alarmism – or for that matter, climate scepticism – means scientists taking sides in a political war. ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, you’re still going to upset people’, says Brandon.
This should give us a clue as to how damaging the expectations of science are. Science is expected to give decisive answers to the debate and unambiguous instructions to politics. Brandon crystallises the problem: ‘In a way, it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to be part of the public debate’, he says. ‘You’ve got no right to be quiet, because the implications of some of the things that people are determining are significant’. The scientist who produces research that either tends towards or against the alarmist picture of the world finds him or herself on that side. So why do any science or make comments in public at all?
As long as there is an expectation that science can only produce uncorrupted and objective accounts of the world, the immediate significance of melting ice (and other things) will continue to be overstated. And while there is an expectation that instructions to politics can be simply read off from scientific observations, anti-progress and anti-human narratives, of the kind epitomised by the Guardian’s alarmism, will persist. It is these tendencies which allow a few millimetres of melted ice to turn into stories about several miles of melting, and many meters of sea level rise.
One way out of this impasse might be to recognise the extent to which the dramatic storyline of climate catastrophe precedes science, afflicting even scientists. It’s not enough to simply say that this or that aspect of alarmism is overcooked; the problem is with the entire outlook. Science cannot tell you that melting ice is significant; it can only explain how much of it has melted. The significance of melting ice is determined by how much we believe the future depends on ice not melting.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12599/</em>
Some 50,000 delegates and 100 world leaders met at the Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ last month to settle on ‘the future we want’. They failed.
‘Let me be frank. Our efforts have not lived up to the measure of the challenge’, said UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, at the opening ceremony. What ‘we want’ turned out to be the opposite of what he thought we wanted. Ban continued: ‘For too long, we have behaved as though we could… burn and consume our way to prosperity. Today, we recognise that we can no longer do so. We recognise that the old model for economic development and social advancement is broken… Our global footprint has overstepped our planet’s boundaries.’
Rio+20 was presented as an opportunity to determine ‘the future we want’ as though there was a free choice to be made. The next moment, the ugly truth was revealed: choice had been excluded. Science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’ – the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis revised for the twenty-first century – which, with the imperatives of ‘sustainable development’, had already decided what kind of future we should be allowed.
A lot is expected of ‘science’. However, the failure of Rio+20, like the failure of many global conferences to produce agreements, such as the meetings at Durban, Cancun andCopenhagen, reveals once again that the real function of ‘science’ is a fig leaf for their delegates’ bad faith. One of the first to reflect on the failure of Rio, for instance, was UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called the agreement produced by the conference ‘insipid’. He should know – before setting off to Rio, he wrote in the Guardian that ‘developed economies must not sacrifice long-term sustainability in the name of short-term growth’, that ‘national governments [must] broaden their understanding of wealth’, and that ‘Rio must set out a plan for the future’.
Rio+20 was the ideal marketplace for such bland pieties. It’s not as if economic growth, short- or long-term, is a problem the UK enjoys. Politicians and ‘thinkers’ who lack the ideas necessary to produce positive change – growth – turn the concept of growth into the enemy. The anti-growth lobby congeals at events such as Rio, where there’s ample opportunity to swap ideas about how to turn their own mediocrity into a worldwide political project under the pretence of ‘saving the planet’. In reality, the desire for powerful global political institutions owes much more to politicians’ own domestic crises of legitimacy than it does to any real threat to the world’s rivers, trees and oceans.
This fact of environmentalism’s political utility to disoriented and useless politicians was epitomised on a recent episode of the BBC interview programme, Hard Talk, in which the former secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, said: ‘All through human political history, you have had governments that have tried to set up particular objectives and have realised they can only go so far so fast without the rest of the world going along with them. For example, back in the bad old days of communism, you had the whole argument about whether Joe Stalin could have socialism in one country. You can’t have environmentalism in one country.’
By winning whatever passes for the hearts and minds of the political establishment, environmentalism has been installed throughout political institutions without ever having won a democratic contest of its ideals. Such is the extent of this insidious colonisation that any public debate about the future, especially of energy policies, is already prefigured according to environmental precepts. Party-political debates about the environment in the UK have consisted of no more than oneupmanship: who is taking the climate issue most seriously.
Similarly, debates in the wider public sphere consist of little more than terrifying stories about our imminent demise. Opportunities to challenge the premise of such alarmism are limited to discussing, for example, energy as an end in itself – which means of generating power is the least problematic – rather than as a means to solve human problems of scarcity. The rights and wrongs of political environmentalism – its designs for political institutions, the reorganisation of economic and industrial life, and the management of lifestyles according to environmental diktats – are rarely, if ever, exposed to discussion.
Nowhere is environmentalism more protected from scrutiny than at conferences such as Rio+20. They are held well beyond the reach of democratic politics and far from critics. Yet some are not convinced that such institution-making is put far enough outside our control. Just as the basis for political environmentalism is seemingly justified on ‘what science says’, so resistance to environmentalism’s political projects is explained by its advocates in pseudoscientific terms: that we are all addicted to consumer society.
This assumption that the masses are suffering from consumption addiction allows world leaders to step in and make the big decisions about the future on our behalf. Yet conferences like Rio+20 are not about protecting us plebs; these shindigs are really about protecting the elites. The real reason Huhne couldn’t build ‘environmentalism in one country’ is because nobody in that country wanted it. The way around such stumbling blocks is to establish a basis for political institutions internationally, away from such troubling concepts as democracy.
NGOs are only too happy to help. As I have argued previously on spiked, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to establish itself as a popular movement. Instead, environmental NGOs – a pale imitation of mass movements – were given access to political institutions to overcome the disconnect between political elites and the public. As ‘pressure groups’, they pretended to be holding governments to account, but by raising the issues the government wanted to identify with, NGOs were actually doing governments’ bidding.
This supranational institution-building needs its own legitimising basis: environmental crisis. And this is where the science is recruited. Scientific organisations all over the world plan for years to produce the most ghastly predictions from measurements of our relationship with the natural world. Most notably, the Royal Society began its quest to investigate ‘the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet’, published shortly before the Rio conference two years ago. The reality of The Science is, however, that ‘planetary boundaries’ have no more been detected than have the mechanisms which supposedly reduce politics to a search for the expression of neurotransmitters associated with pleasure. Boundaries are presupposed rather than discovered.
The desire to organise society according to ‘scientific’ principles inevitably treats humans like trash, without exception. Prejudices are smuggled under cover of science.
A proper perspective on the context of Rio gives us many more clues about what it is really intended to achieve than The Science does. Hollow politicians escape their domestic problems to pose in front of cameras as planet-savers. Morally bankrupt and self-serving NGOs appoint themselves as the representatives of non-existent future generations and the poorest people in the world, while campaigning for a form of politics that puts political power beyond the reach of democratic control. Sociopathic public-health control freaks and weirdo Malthusian scientists – the rightful heirs of the eugenics movement – get to parade their anti-human hypotheses as virtues. A supine media, in search of drama, declares this the final opportunity to save us from ecological Armageddon.
It would be easier to swallow the claim that science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’, and that it was necessary to create certain political institutions to deal with the problem, if the claims stopped there. But instead of stopping there, environmentalists have developed an entire ideology, premised on the idea that humans are incapable of reason, and concluding that powerful institutions are necessary to contain our impulses. That framework is expedient to the current mode of politics: the endless construction of historically illiterate technocracies that lumber from crisis to crisis, to the extent that they now need crisis to legitimise all the lumbering.
But what about The Science? If there really are problems with humanity’s relationship with the natural world, then what really impedes an understanding and solving of those problems are these anti-human precepts that dominate at least half of the calculation. It is no surprise that, when you take such a low view of humanity, you discover that things are ‘unsustainable’.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12456/</em>
Forty years ago, two ideas about humanity’s relationship with the natural world caught the imagination of the richest and most influential people. The first was that the demands of a growing population were taking more from the planet than could be replaced by natural processes. The second, related idea was that there exist natural ‘limits to growth’. These two reinventions of Malthusianism became the basis of a new form of global politics, which has sought to contain human industrial and economic development ever since.
Fears about the possibility of global environmental catastrophe and its human consequences, as depicted by neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich – author of the 1968 prophecy, The Population Bomb – and the Club of Rome – a talking shop for high-level politicians, diplomats and researchers – became the ground on which a number of organisations established under the United Nations were formed. In 1972, the UN held its Conference on the Human Environment, and began its environment programme, UNEP. In 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, aka The Brundtland Commission, after its chair, Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland) was formed, leading to the publication of its findings in 1987 in Our Common Future. Also known as the Brundtland Report, it became the bible of ‘sustainable development’.
Having established sustainable development as an imperative of global politics, more organisations and programmes under the UN were formed to deliver it. In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the first ‘Earth Summit’, was held in Rio, leading to the Agenda 21 ‘blueprint for a sustainable planet’, UN conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNSCD). Since then, an entire ecosystem of global, national, governmental and non-governmental organisations has emerged, to advocate and implement the closer integration of human productive life with knowledge about the environment: to observe the ‘limits to growth’. The most notable of these is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under which a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions is being sought.
Forty years on, and those predictions of doom have not been borne out. The average life expectancy of a human has increased by 10 years, and the number of infants dying before their fifth birthday has fallen from 134 per thousand to 58. Thus, the human population has nearly doubled, and global GDP has risen threefold. There are more of us, we are healthier, wealthier and better fed. There is vast disparity between what the advocates of political environmentalism have claimed and reality. So why are world leaders set to meet next month in Rio at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development?
The conference, known as Rio+20, aims to bring together‘world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups’ to ‘shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever-more crowded planet to get to the future we want’. But these apparently noble ends belie some shameful means. It’s not for you or I to decide what ‘the future we want’ will look like by participating in democratic processes. Instead, ‘world leaders’ from governments, businesses and NGOs are to decide it for us.
What happens then, if we don’t believe that an emphasis on sustainability is the best way to approach the problems of poverty and inequity? What happens if we think that progress in the world has been achieved, in spite of it not being ‘sustainable’? And what if we don’t think that the Great and the Good are doing anything other than serving themselves by this new form of politics?
There is, of course, no opportunity for the expression of such ideas. The Rio+20 conference will be a meeting to extend the reach of supranational institutions that are already beyond democratic control. By design, the meeting precludes public engagement. And any recalcitrant ‘actors’ who do make it to the meeting can expect to be made pariahs. Environmentalism is a form of politics that exists apart from the demos. It superficially aims to resolve the problems that are putatively beyond the reach of normal politics, such as poverty, by promising to meet the merely metabolic needs of the world’s poorest people.
However, this promise comes at a price. The 1972 Stockholm meeting discussed the ‘need for new concepts of sovereignty, based not on the surrender of national sovereignties but on better means of exercising them collectively, and with a greater sense of responsibility for the common good’. In other words, the world can be fed, clothed and housed at the cost of autonomy.
This surrendering of autonomy is a price worth paying, according to its advocates, whose argument has been reduced to a neat little slogan: global problems need global solutions. For instance, while trying to understand why scepticism of climate-change policies seems to correspond to a conservative persuasion, the Guardian’s Damian Carringtonrecently opined: ‘The problem is that global environmental problems require global action, which means cooperation if there are to be no free-riders. That implies international treaties and regulations, which to some on the right equate with communism.’
The claim is ridiculous for many reasons; not least of which is the fact that one doesn’t need to be ‘on the right’ to be sceptical of international treaties and regulations. One might also object to the creation of powerful political institutions and far-reaching policies simply on the basis that their construction has not been democratic.
Another reason might be that the concepts of ‘global’ and ‘sustainability’ are at best nebulous. To what extent are ‘global problems’ really global? And to what extent can making and doing things ‘sustainably’ really address problems such as poverty and inequality? Poverty is not, in fact, a problem of too much exploitation of natural resources, but too little. And poverty is not a global problem, but a categorically local one, in which a population is isolated from the rest of the world.
We can only account for poverty and inequality in the terms preferred by environmentalists if we accept the limits-to-growth thesis and the zero-sum game that flows from it. In other words, that there are limits on what we can take from the planet and we can only solve poverty if we divide those limited resources more equitably. Such an argument for reducing and redistributing resources has the reactionary consequence of displacing the argument for creating more wealth.
But to date, the arguments that there exist limits to growth, an optimum relationship between people and the planet, and that industrial society is ‘unsustainable’, have not found support in reality. The neo-Malthusians’ predictions in the Sixties and Seventies were contradicted by growth in population and wealth. And now there is a growing recognition that the phenomenon most emphasised by environmentalists – climate change – has been overstated. The scientist who proposed that life on Earth may function as a self-regulating system, James Lovelock, has distanced himself from the more extreme implications of his hypothesis. Where Lovelock once predicted ‘Gaia’s revenge’, he has reflected in ashort interview for MSNBC.com on his alarmist tome, and criticised others such as Al Gore for their over-emphasis on catastrophic narratives. This is a remarkable volte face in itself, but reflects a broader phenomenon: the coming to fruition of environmentalism’s incoherence.
Issues such as genetically modified foods and nuclear powerhave caused friction and factions to form within the green movement. Prophecies of doom, such as sea-level rise,melting glaciers and ice caps, wars for resources, mass extinctions and economic and social chaos have been deferred from the imminent – first by decades, then centuries, and now perhaps even millennia, depriving the movement of its urgency and forcing its members to seek (and fail to find) more pragmatic formulations of environmentalism. Meetings to find a global agreement on climate change have ended in disarray and bitter recriminations rather than harmony and a bright green future. So can the Rio+20 meeting buck the trend, and settle on coherent objectives for global environmental politics?
It seems unlikely that it can. Although the meeting intends to deliver ‘the future we want’, it turns out that what ‘we’ want is more difficult to identify than the UN had hoped. Even when we – hoi polloi – were excluded from preparatory meetings to determine the conference’s agenda, negotiators from 193 countries failed to settle on what they wanted. Just as with the climate negotiations, it turns out that different countries have different interests and want different things. And those other actors – the unaccountable, unelected and undemocratic NGOs – look ready to throw their toys out of the pram. For example, development charity Oxfam whinged that ‘governments are using or allowing the talks to undermine established human rights and agreed principles such as equity, precaution, and “polluter pays”’.
This is no surprise. ‘Sustainability’ is not about delivering‘what we want’ at all but, on the contrary, mediating our desires, both material and political. Accordingly, the object of the Rio meeting is not as much about finding a ‘sustainable’ relationship between humanity and the natural world as it is about finding a secure basis for the political establishment. The agenda for the Rio +20 conference is the discussion of ‘decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness’. Again, noble aims, perhaps. But is the provision of life’s essentials, and the creation of opportunities for jobs and the design of cities, really a job for special forms of politics and supranational organisations?
The idea that there are too many people, or that the natural world is so fragile that these things are too difficult for normal, democratic politics to deliver, flies in the face of facts. It would be easier to take environmentalists and the UN’s environmental programmes more seriously if millions of people were marching under banners calling for ‘lower living standards’ and ‘less democracy’. Instead, just a tiny elite speaks for the sustainability agenda, and only a small section of that elite is allowed to debate what it even means to be ‘sustainable’. We are being asked to take at face value their claims to be serving the ‘common good’. But there is no difference between the constitutions of benevolent dictatorships and tyrannies.
Sustainability is a fickle concept. And its proponents are promiscuous with scientific evidence and ignorant of the context and the development of the sustainability agenda, believing it to be simply a matter of ‘science’ rather than politics. The truth of ‘sustainability’, and the meeting at Rio next month, is that it is not our relationship with the natural world that it wishes to control, but human desires, autonomy and sovereignty. That is why, in 1993, the Club of Rome published its report, The First Global Revolution, written by the club’s founder and president, Alexander King and Bertrand Schneider. The authors determined that, in order to overcome political failures, it was necessary to locate ‘a common enemy against whom we can unite’. But in fighting this enemy – ‘global warming, water shortages, famine and the like’ – the authors warned that we must not ‘mistake symptoms for causes’. ‘All these dangers are caused by human intervention in natural processes, and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy then is humanity itself.’
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12163/</em>
When internal documents from a libertarian think tank – the Heartland Institute, known for its sceptical views on climate change – were published on the internet recently, climate-change activists around the world were elated. The leak seemed to reveal the existence of a conspiracy to distort science and impede political progress on solving climate change, just as activists had claimed. But the celebrations turned sour when one of the documents turned out to be fake, and the remainder turned out to reveal nothing remarkable. Rather than telling us anything about organised ‘climate-change denial’, this silly affair reveals much more about environmentalists.
One of the endlessly recurring themes of the environmental narrative is – in the words of the man at the centre of the ‘Fakegate’ mess, water and climate researcher Peter Gleick – that an ‘anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated’ effort exists ‘to cast doubt on climate science’, and ‘muddy public understanding about climate science and policy’. According to this mythology, right-leaning think tanks are funded by big energy companies that are keen to protect their profits from environmental regulation.
There are two problems for environmentalists convinced by this mythology.
The first is that it has never been plausible. Large corporations do not suffer from regulation. They are simply able to pass costs on to the consumer. Moreover, regulation creates firm ground on which to base longer-term strategic decisions about capital investments. And finally, regulation creates opportunities for companies that are able to mobilise resources to enter new markets. Wind farms, for example, are not cottage industries. Regulation suits larger companies.
The second problem for environmentalists has been to demonstrate that the myth is anything more than a myth. An ongoing Greenpeace project launched in 2004, for instance, aimed to provide a ‘database of information on the corporate-funded anti-environmental movement’. However, the sums of money involved were paltry. According to Greenpeace, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of the most vilified organisations, had received just $2million from Exxon between 1998 and 2005. Yet between 1994 and 2005, total donations to Greenpeace amounted to over $2 billion. According to the greens’ conspiratorial narrative, a handful of conservative think tanks with relatively small resources were seemingly able to undo the campaigning of a host of huge international environmental NGOs, national governments, international agencies, and yes, corporate interests, whose combined resources were many, many thousands of times greater.
The myth of the climate change denier exists in the heads of environmentalists, and seems to prevent them entering into conversation with anyone that dares to criticise environmentalism. The crusade of ‘communicating’ climate change is not a project that involves an exchange of views. To criticise environmentalism is to ‘deny The Science’, no matter how incoherent the environmentalist’s grasp of science or how lacking his or her sense of proportion.
It must be for that reason that, when Gleick was invited to speak at an event held by the Heartland Institute, he refused. Instead of taking the opportunity to bring ‘The Science’ to ‘the deniers’, he created an email account using the name of a Heartland Institute board member. With this, he emailed an administrator at the think tank, requesting internal documents be forwarded to the spoofed inbox ’ a tactic known as ‘phishing’ in bank fraud.
Gleick has now confessed to soliciting the Heartland’s internal documents. However, it was the contents of a strategy document which caused the most interest from environmentalists, and the Heartland Institute claim that this memo was faked. Gleick claims that he was not the author of the faked document, and that it was emailed to him from an anonymous source. He set up the fake email account in order to establish the document’s authenticity, to see if it would be corroborated by the documents he sought.
This seems to be a somewhat implausible account of events, not least because it was the hammy wording of the document that led to immediate speculation that Gleick was the author. A number of sceptics observed that the author of the faked document was either vain or intent on flattering Gleick, and was unable convincingly to produce a document that could have been written by climate sceptics. As Megan McArdleobserved in the Atlantic: ‘Basically, it reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.’
But speculation about the identity of the author is pointless. And so, too, is speculation about how much of what was claimed by the faked document is true. The documents reveal that the Heartland Institute took $4,638,398 (about £3million) in receipts in 2011. This is, by campaigning standards, very small beer, and only part of that went towards the Institute’s global-warming campaign. To put that figure into perspective, an article in Time magazine recently revealed ‘that between 2007 and 2010, the Sierra Club accepted over $25million [£15.7million] in donations… mostly from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy—one of the biggest gas-drilling companies in the US and a firm heavily involved in fracking – to help fund the Club’s Beyond Coal campaign’.
It would seem that fossil-fuel companies give far greater sums to environmental campaigning organisations in order to score advantage over rival fossil-fuel companies than they give to anti-environmental campaigning organisations. Yet environmentalists the world over were jumping up and down after the stolen documents apparently showed that the Charles G Koch Charitable Foundation – funded by the much loathed Koch Industries, which has substantial energy interests – had itself funded the Heartland Institute. At last, environmentalists were able to connect an energy giant with a conservative think tank. But Koch only gave $25,000 (£16,000) in 2011, and that donation was earmarked for a project that had nothing to do with global warming: the Institute’s healthcare newsletter service.
But a sense of proportion isn’t something that bothers environmental activists and journalists. It did not stop them believing that their mythology had finally been made real. ‘Leak exposes how Heartland Institute works to undermine climate science’, said the Guardian‘s Suzanne Goldenburg, adding: ‘Libertarian think tank keeps prominent sceptics on its payroll and relies on millions in funding from carbon industry, papers suggest.’ Except the documents didn’t suggest it at all, it was simply a figment of Goldenburg’s imagination. In the same newspaper, and making heavy use of the faked document, Leo Hickman smugly announced that ‘If you like your hypocrisy sandwiches served with a side order of double standards, then these leaked documents are certainly the place to dine out’.
There is no doubting that these journalistic idiots – and many more besides – were duped. But in fact they were convinced of the story before the documents were even published. They had fooled themselves. And when the forgery was revealed, the facts faded even further away from their focus. Many journalists even tried to present Gleick as a hero. Naomi Kleintweeted that Gleick ‘took big risks to bring important truths about the deniers to light’. George Monbiot declared Gleick a ‘democratic hero’, and that ‘he has done something of benefit to society’. Monbiot went on to chastise Telegraph columnist, Christopher Booker, for failing to declare that he had received a $1,000 honorarium from the Heartland Institute, for speaking at its annual climate-change conference.
Is it really plausible that a journalist such as Booker has been bought for a measly thousand bucks? Or is Monbiot, like many others, pointing at trivialities to sustain the environmental mythology. Elsewhere in the Guardian, climate-change ethical philosopher James Garvey reveals the truth in his question: ‘If Gleick frustrates the efforts of Heartland, isn’t his lie justified by the good that it does?’ Environmentalists are so convinced of their cause that it is the only moral absolute. The Guardian, a newspaper which makes such a virtue of ‘ethics’, and of ‘transparency’ – especially in the climate debate – now seems to be saying ‘it’s okay to lie’.
The environmental movement is as promiscuous with its ‘ethics’ as it is with ‘The Science’. You can make stuff up, apparently, just so long as you do so in order to ‘save the planet’. And this is why sums as paltry and insignificant as $1,000 are so important to their perspective. It is only by amplifying the trivial that the myth of ‘networks’ of ‘well-funded deniers’ can be sustained. It’s only when you lose a sense of proportion that a few million dollars can stop global action on climate change. Trivia, vanity and mythology allows environmentalists to turn ordinary facts of politics – funding, associations of people, and campaigning organisations – into secret conspiracies to explain their own failure to create a popular movement.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12113/</em>
A study published in Nature last week has found that the effects of climate change on Himalayan glaciers have been overstated. But rather than facing up to their alarmism, those who have been guilty of exaggeration remain as unreflective as ever. Perhaps they are intent on continuing to make political and moral capital out of the possibility of climate catastrophe.
The researchers behind the study recorded the progress of ice caps and glaciers throughout the world over an eight-year period in order to estimate their contribution to sea-level rise. The scientists were reportedly ‘stunned’ by their findings: the Himalayan glaciers weren’t as sensitive to climate change as had been previously thought. Nonetheless, the message has not changed. ‘People should be just as worried about the melting of the world’s ice as they were before’, they said.
The researchers claim that, in spite of the non-melting Himalayan glaciers, the rate at which ice throughout the world is melting remains a cause for worry because sea levels are still rising. But then sea levels have been rising for all of recorded history and for thousands of years before. Even at the current rate of rising, global sea levels will be just 30 centimetres higher in a century’s time – an increase that would be dwarfed by a modest wave on a beach. It’s hardly the stuff of disaster movies.
Among the litany of claims about climate change, sea-level rise is one of the most tangible. But a sober reading of the literature put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not support the alarmist message or the claim that immediate and drastic action is needed to mitigate climate change. Of course, that’s not to say that climate change isn’t a problem, but rather that it’s not as urgent as often claimed. It’s a problem that could be solved in good time and without the kind of reorganisation of the world that environmentalists demand.
But because this reality doesn’t suit the policies environmentalists want to bring about, more dramatic images are constantly called for. Greens have long traded in icy icons to advance their cause. For example, in his 2006 Oscar-winning doc, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore warned about the peaks of Kilimanjaro becoming ice-free. In fact, there was good evidence that the disappearance had been taking place since the nineteenth century, and had nothing at all to do with us driving cars – as implied in the film.
Then there is the annual ritual of shrill panic-peddling about the melting of Arctic sea ice. Each summer brings fresh speculations about how many years the sea ice will remain at the pole. As I have pointed out previously on spiked, when one out of six new studies showed that a new record had been set for Arctic sea ice extent, the Guardian’s Damian Carrington declared: ‘Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity.’ It didn’t matter that none of the other five datasets warranted Carrington’s doom-mongering, the anomalous outlier gave his fantasy plausibility anyway. Environmental alarmism is nothing if it isn’t promiscuous with ‘scientific evidence’.
Perhaps even worse is that other story from the Arctic, told ad infinitum: the plight of the poor polar bear. The melting Arctic is, according to the claims of many environmentalists, depriving this creature of its natural habitat and so it is in danger of extinction. But this story is wildly exaggerated, too, including in the BBC’s recent Frozen Planet series.
In a letter to the Radio Times, Nigel Lawson of the Global Warming Policy Foundation rebutted many of the series’ claims, including the one about the polar bear population falling. In truth, Lawson wrote, it is rising. Environmentalists were apoplectic. Polar oceanographer Dr Mark Brandon, from the Open University, issued a rebuttal after claiming that Lawson’s article had been ‘patronising, wrong and the usual tired obfuscation and generalisation’. Yet a closer examinationof the research cited by Brandon suggests a very different picture. In fact, there is only sufficient data to say that one out of 19 sub-populations of polar bears is in decline. Polar bear populations had been estimated as being in decline in spite of evidence to the contrary. Overall, and based on actual population studies, there is good evidence that polar bear numbers have increased, as Lawson said.
So how come scientists and environmental journalists are so often ‘stunned’ when data from the real world turns up to challenge the view of the world that exists within their heads? Tom Chivers of the Telegraph graciously informs us that ‘when we learn something unexpected about climate change, it’s because the much-derided climate scientists have found it’. So it’s not thanks to the sceptics interrogating the alarmists’ claims – no, never! But Chivers’ haughtiness was premature. What needs explaining is not who discovered what – the scientists or the ‘deniers’ – but how alarmist claims about climate change always seem to precede the evidence, such that researchers believe the negative picture before the science has delivered a verdict.
After all, scientists – as much as environmental activists – emphasise dramatic stories, and they often do so on the scantest evidence. Expertise does not preclude the reproduction of hysteria about the imminent collapse of the world’s glaciers, ice caps or polar bear populations and the subsequent inundation of all the world’s cities by floods, the drying up of resources, the creation of ‘climate refugees’, chaos and war. These are the views produced and reproduced uncritically by experts.
What concerns this sceptic when it comes to that kind of climate alarmism and the bizarre politics it produces, is the possibility that all too often stories precede science. There is a widespread idea that there are actual and robust measurements of polar bear populations, the extent of glaciers, the rate of sea-level rise, and the extent of polar sea ice. But in each of these cases, closer examination of the available evidence reveals the role of guesswork in the estimation of these ‘indicators’ of climate change and its effects. Worse still, perhaps, is the possibility that these ‘indicators’ are presupposed to be in decline for no other reason than the truism ‘climate change is happening’.
Once you presuppose that climate change is happening, it doesn’t take a leap of faith to incorporate the assumption into models to estimate the health of polar bear populations, the progress of glaciers, and the vulnerability of Arctic sea ice. There were no data showing polar bears and Himalayan glaciers to be in terminal decline. Even measurements of Arctic sea ice only extend back to 1979. And so knowledge which is patchy, based on sparse data, estimates and guesswork is fitted into an encompassing storyline of climate change. Really, they ought to remain disconnected stories, at least until more robust studies can show otherwise.
The most extreme conditions on the planet are naturally the least accessible and therefore the least understood. Such regions aren’t simply distant; our primary access to them is through the imagination. It is no coincidence, then, that stories about climate change seem to be located at the hottest, highest, deepest and coldest parts of the world. The most alarming stories about climate change rest where there is the least data. Like explorers in search of Yeti, climate researchers hunt frozen landscapes hoping to make the myth a reality.
Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12005/
The first question asked about anyone making a non-conforming argument in the climate debate is ‘who funds them?’ And so it is with the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) – a three-man, cross-party, independent think tank with charitable status, which dared to challenge climate orthodoxy. The Charities Commission rejected an Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request demanding to know who gave the GWPF its first cheque of £50,000. Several climate scientists have backed the call for the Charities Commission to reveal who backs the GWPF.
The GWPF’s charitable status allows its donors to be protected from the FOIA. This has angered climate activists, who are determined to connect climate-change ‘denial’ with oil interests. Accordingly, Brendan Montague of the Request Initiative submitted the FOIA request on the basis that ‘the public has a right to know if any donor is related in any way to the oil industry’. The Commission refused the request, and Montague took his complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which also rejected the claim. This crusade for honesty and transparency is confounded, however, by two huge problems for the GWPF’s critics.
The first is that it is transparently the case that, whatever the GWPF has said about climate change, it has enjoyed no influence over policy whatsoever. Neither the present nor the previous governments have taken the slightest notice of any sceptics, other than to condemn them. Far-reaching national and international climate policies have been enacted with minimal opposition or scrutiny within Parliament, and in spite of sceptics’ arguments and public opinion.
Second, whether or not it was honestly given (and I find it hard to give a stuff, either way), the £50,000 donation at the centre of this absurd story is a fantastically small amount. Even the £500,000 that the GWPF received from donors in its first year of operations fades into insignificance when put in perspective.
For example, it would take the combined resources of 25 GWPFs to produce an equivalent of the UK government’s extraordinarily patronising Act on CO2 campaign. The Committee on Climate Change spends more than eight times that much each year on its own operations. In 2010, the quasi-independent Carbon Trust and Energy Saving Trust received government grants worth £156million and £70million respectively. That’s a total of 452 times as much public money as the GWPF took from donors. The billionaire Jeremy Grantham – who has around $1.5 billion worth of stock in oil companies – is the benefactor of the influential Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change, headed by Lord Nicholas Stern, who wrote The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and WWF enjoy gifts of millions of pounds from the UK and EU governments. And the EU funds associations of renewable energy companies to lobby politicians to the tune of millions of euros per year.
It would be an astronomical understatement to say that the environmental activists banging on about the GWPF lack a sense of proportion and have incredible double standards. The GWPF’s resources are far less than even a thousandth of what is available to the government for research and PR – through its departments, the quangos and NGOs that are recruited into its green agenda, and firms and other associations that will profit by it. And yet this tiny operation has seemingly achieved such reach, to punch far above its weight, against the collective force of all the above.
The Guardian‘s environmental ethicist, Leo Hickman, has covered the latest turn in the progress of Montague’s crusade against the GWPF – an appeal against the ICO’s decision, which will be heard at the Information Rights Tribunal on Friday. Hickman, clearly entirely credulous towards this information-seeking hero, recites the complaints against the think tank – generally limp and petty criticism which takes more liberties with the facts than they accuse the GWPF of.
One such critic is James Hansen, the NASA climate-scientist-turned-amateur-dramatist who suggests that future generations will find the GWPF ‘guilty of crimes against humanity and nature’. With such a high-profile scientist expressing such shrill and irrational opinions, it becomes hard to take his scientific claims seriously. But perhaps the most remarkable claim is Hickman’s complaint that ‘Last November, a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which analysed climate coverage in the UK media, concluded that the GWPF had been “particularly successful” at courting media attention and that Lawson and the foundation’s director Benny Peiser were “by far” the most quoted climate sceptics.’
The Guardian‘s ethicist must be scratching his head over why the organisation he writes so many articles about enjoys such attention in the media. But anyone even barely acquainted with common sense will know that the vast majority of the public have never even heard of the GWPF, let alone seen its efforts, and so will be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
There are several answers. The first is that both establishment and street-level environmentalists are far better at losing friends and alienating people than their critics are at winning influence. Yet environmentalists like to believe it is sceptics who are preventing them from saving the planet. The GWPF, being among the few critics, serves as a convenient villain in such moral pantomimes. Second, as is obvious from Hansen and Hickman’s verbiage, there is little attention paid to anything the GWPF actually says. The mythological ‘denier’ precedes a view of the debate, yet it is hard to find anything radical within the GWPF’s output.
This leads to a third answer, which is that a preoccupation with who-is-funded-by-whom epitomises the vacuity of contemporary politics. It is a way of avoiding criticism, rather than engaging with it. Montague’s reckoning appears to be that the criticism offered by the GWPF is answered, just so long as he can tie the name on the cheque to the fossil-fuel sector.
This he-who-pays-the-piper-calls-the-tune nonsense is a familiar motif in the climate-change debate, but it is not unique to it. The wider phenomenon of increased emphasis on ‘evidence’ in public policy inevitably leads to claims that others are ‘denying’ scientific fact. The irony of evidence-based policy-making, then, is that it locates the debate, not on the ground of evidence, but on who is the least impeachable provider of it. Thus, environmentalists are preoccupied with the follow-the-money argument, oblivious to the financial interests stacked up in favour of green energy.
A further irony is that Montague’s outfit sells itself with these words: ‘Request Initiative uses information law to deliver government data into your hands, enhancing your organisation’s media, research and campaigns work. We work exclusively for the third sector.’ It is remarkable, then, to note that the GWPF is one of just a few critics of government policy, yet has earned the wrath of the third sector. Indeed, Request and Montague are doing the establishment’s work here, with NGOs, environmental activists and the Guardian all nodding in approval at the attempt to use state apparatus to quash unorthodox opinion, rather than facing it in public debate. In conclusion: there should be more GWPFs.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/11888/</em>
It was the latest in a long series of last chances to save the planet. Like a convention of superheroes, 14,500 politicians, civil servants, journalists and campaigners from development and environmental NGOs descended on Durban, South Africa, for the seventeenth Committee of Parties (COP) meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Their agreement, if they could reach one, would save the remaining 6,999,985,500 of us from certain doom.
Just as with past COP meetings, despite the broad consensus on the need to save the planet and having all the best scientists available to them, the superheroes failed. Once again, it was not climate-change deniers and secret PR campaigns funded by Big Oil companies that caused the failure. Instead, it was the incoherence and conflicting agendas of those who wanted an agreement that made reaching one impossible. The business of cutting CO2 emissions to save the planet turns out to be more complex than simply agreeing that it’s a good idea to do so.
For instance, among the things considered by the world’s most important people who assembled in Durban were thepropositions that the ‘rights of mother Earth’ should be recognised; that international courts be established to ‘ensure respect for the intrinsic laws of nature’ and ‘to ensure harmony between humanity and nature and that their [sic] will be no commodification of the functions of nature’. With the stench of such nebulous eco-bullshit wafting around the negotiations, it’s no surprise that the fortnight-long session had to be extended in order desperately to find some areas of agreement.
Apart from the more obvious eco-waffle, however, the biggest problem for hopes of a climate agreement are the many contested alarmist interpretations of ‘the science’. The climate issue long ago ceased to be a purely technical matter and has instead become an encompassing story that explains global inequality, poverty, natural disasters, war, migration, and even the problems with capitalism. In other words, climate change has become the issue on to which any other issue or agenda can be pegged. Exhausted political ambitions are smuggled on to the international agenda under the cover of ‘science’. As a result, arguments in favour of a strong, binding agreement have sought moral capital and urgency by claiming that failure to find it will bring catastrophe on the least fortunate in the world. And so the search for victims to parade at COP17 began.
‘Cape Verde minister appeals for EU support not to sign their death warrants’, tweeted Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and climate adviser to President Nasheed of the Maldives. In the entrance to the building housing the negotiations, delegates held an ‘occupation’, in which the mostly white crowd held signs saying ‘Don’t Kill Africa’, ‘Stand With Africa’, and chanted the Greenpeace slogan ‘listen to the people, not the polluters’.
The irony of demands for ‘democracy’ coming from almost 6,000NGO representatives – nearly half the total number of attendees – would be lost on them. But nobody could have been more oblivious to it than activist Abigail Borah, who interrupted US climate negotiator Todd Stern’s presentation. ‘I’m scared for my future’, she shouted across the meeting room at a pitch that matched the shrill moral tone. ‘You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions’, she demanded. ‘The United States’ government does not speak on my behalf’, she whined to a journalist.
Borah and a number of other activists were ejected from the negotiations. For so long, NGOs have campaigned for governments of the world to take such meetings seriously, to ignore the wishes of their electorates, to create a legally binding agreement. Yet here they were, making a mockery of what they had lobbied for and had been given access to. They were there, in huge numbers, but were complaining that the process doesn’t represent them.
As I’ve argued previously on spiked, there is a bizarre relationship between NGOs, national governments and supranational political organisations. In these sterile, post-political times, governments – especially in the West – have sought from supranational organisations and NGOs the mandate they once took from the electorate, to represent instead the problems the world apparently faces. People are represented in this form of politics only to the extent that their victimhood serves some purpose. Organisations such as the EU and UN, being far removed from ordinary life, recruit organisations from civil society – those which care about animals, trees, starving babies and climate change – to arm their projects with moral purpose and legitimacy.
This is the real dynamic driving the UNFCCC process. Supranational political organisations have sought legitimacy from NGOs, which have in turn cast the world’s problems as environmental problems. According to them, our profligate ways here in the West cause rains and crops to fail in Africa. This subordination of the development agenda to the climate agenda, however, has turned development NGOs against development. The expectation is that a strong, legally binding climate agreement will end poverty, but this was simply not a view shared by all parties.
Emerging economies such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the so-called BASIC group) angled to keep themselves out of any new commitments. The more industrialised countries had yet to shoulder their historic responsibility for causing climate change, and failed to meet their targets under the Kyoto Protocol, the previous agreement. So why should these newly industrialised countries sign up to anything? The development cat was out of the climate-change bag: to agree to reduce emissions is to agree severely to impede development. The anti-development and legalistic logic of environmental alarmism was the very thing that separated its most zealous adherents from its putative beneficiaries.
By the end of the two weeks, the failure of COP meetings to produce an agreement looked imminent. The process, which had been riven through by disagreement, was extended by 36 hours. This undignified ending of international negotiations looked like an heroic gesture: exhausted officials and environmental activists trying desperately to prevent the Armageddon that looms over us. But in reality, it was an operation designed merely to salvage the credibility of the process and those involved in it. An agreement for the sake of an agreement was found: an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, and a ‘roadmap’ to an agreement. What were allegedly the most important decisions to be made about the future of the world ended up being made on the hoof, at the last minute, by sleep-deprived representatives of governments, harangued by an army of environmental activists, in a debating chamber that represents nobody except bureaucrats and NGOs. Outside the negotiations, reality bites. Barely 24 hours later, the Canadian environment minister, Peter Kent, announced: ‘We are invoking Canada’s legal right to formally withdraw from Kyoto.’
The process of finding a global ‘deal’ on climate change is beset by the incoherence of its objectives. Is it about ‘respecting Mother Nature’, ‘saving the planet’ or ‘ending poverty’? Nobody at the meeting, which conflated so many issues, could claim that it was about climate change. Moreover, the desire for an agreement backed by legal force looks much more like a desire for the force itself than a desire to ‘save the planet’. If the planet really does need saving, then the processes that will save it will be technological, not technocratic.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/11597/</em>
In late 2009, not long before the Copenhagen climate-change conference, thousands of private emails by climate researchers based at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) were leaked on the internet. The content of the emails raised questions about the propriety of high-profile scientists both at CRU and at other institutions. The authors of these emails seemed to have been taking liberties with statistics, concealing their data and methodology from scrutiny, and treating the critics of their research with contempt. In particular, one email, in which a researcher tried to work out how he might ‘hide the decline’ in temperature data, went viral.
In the wake of this affair, dubbed ‘Climategate’, Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, said: ‘Quite frankly as a scientist, I have a list of people whose papers I won’t read any more. You’re not allowed to do this in science; this is not up to our standards.’ Muller announced that he would be ‘leading a group to re-do all this in a totally transparent way’.
The first results from Muller’s group – Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) – have now been released. Rather than publishing their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, however, Muller and his associates took the somewhat unusual step ofpublishing draft copies of their studies, and then made themselves available for comment in the media. Fuelling controversy further, Muller wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, which an editor titled ‘The Case Against Global Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons for doubt until now’.
The article – and particularly the title – caused delight among climate-activist journalists, scientists and other commentators. ‘Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed’,announced New Scientist. ‘BEST reconfirm: warming is happening’, said the influential Carbon Brief blog, which is staffed predominantly by activists from environmental NGOs. Channel 4 News science correspondent, Tom Clarke, wasasked, ‘so does this finally vindicate climate change science?’. ‘In a word, yes’, he replied. According to Clarke, the BEST team’s discovery that the world is warming got those implicated by Climategate off the hook.
From the copy it had generated, it would seem that BEST had ended the debate. But this interpretation of the BEST results soon started to unravel. Climate scientist, and contributor to the BEST project, Judith Curry observed, ‘the spin on the press release and Muller’s subsequent statements have introduced unnecessary controversy into the BEST data and papers’. Curry’s comments were picked up by journalist David Rose, who wrote: ‘The Mail on Sunday can reveal that a leading member of Professor Muller’s team has accused him of trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.’
Exciting stuff. But that was not actually what Curry had told Rose. ‘To set the record straight, some of the other sentiments attributed to me are not quite right’, she wrote on her blog. Meanwhile, Muller was also distancing himself from the headline of the article in the Wall Street Journal. ‘It doesn’t represent the article’, he told a journalist in New Mexico.
Confusion reigns. Sceptics pointed out that, in spite of the claims that the debate was now over, the BEST study also argued that the ‘human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated’. The data still suggested that there has been a stalling of global temperatures over the past decade, and the study’s attempt to rule out one of the main concerns sceptics have about the way temperature data is recorded appeared to have some serious shortcomings. Even Muller, the project’s leader, didn’t seem to be making consistent statements about what his research meant for the climate-change debate.
None of this fazed the BBC’s environment correspondent, Richard Black, who continued to cover the affair on the assumption that good science was under attack from irrational sceptics. For example, he declared: ‘The original “hide the decline” claim is one of the most easily debunked in the entire pantheon of easily-debunkable “sceptic” claims. [CRU researcher] Phil Jones wrote the email in 1999, immediately following what still ranks as one of the hottest years on record, and well before the idea of a “slowdown” or “hiatus” or even “decline” in warming gained currency. So it can’t have had anything to do with hiding a global temperature decline.’
The expression ‘hide the decline’ is what ultimately led to Climategate becoming such a major story. Defenders of those implicated by the leaked emails argued that ‘hiding the decline’ simply referred to a mathematical technique, rather than a conscious effort to deceive. But there was nonetheless good evidence that something untoward had been intended.
If the sceptics’ interpretation of the ‘hide the decline’ claim was as easy to debunk as Black claimed, Richard Muller would not have needed to bother with the BEST project. Rather, as Muller outlines in an influential lecture, the phrase seemed instead to relate to an unorthodox joining up of temperature datasets, which emphasised data that suited the global warming narrative and played down the data that was deemed ‘inconvenient’ to it. It was for this reason that he decided to establish the BEST project. In his attempt to dismiss the ‘hide the decline’ claim, it seemed Black had simply invented a straw man for critics to knock down.
Had Black wished to overcome the limitations of mediocre journalism, to get to the heart of the debate, there are many well-informed sceptics he could have turned to for comment and advice. One such is Andrew Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion and a report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on the Climategate affair.
‘He’s not representing what the sceptics’ arguments are’, Montford told me. ‘The majority of sceptics say “yes, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the world has warmed”.’ Montford agrees that there is no definitive ‘sceptic’ argument. This fact mirrors the many varied positive claims that are made on the other ‘side’ of the climate debate, but which seem to emerge axiomatically from the fact that ‘climate change is happening’. But the question is not ‘Has the world been getting warmer?’ but ‘How much warmer will it get in the future and what will be the impact?’. That is a much more difficult question to answer.
However, by simply saying that ‘climate change is real’, a variety of activists, researchers and politicians can deliver a great deluge of non-sequiturs about sea-level rise, species extinction, drought, famine, resources wars and so on. And a cascade of familiar remedies follows: the creation of powerful political institutions, a transformation of the global economy and the de facto rationing of energy and regulation of lifestyle. The speed with which these conclusions and policy implications are drawn suggests that this debate is as much about politics and professional status as science.
The climate debate is, in reality, as complex as the whole of human social life and natural science combined. But such a complex state of affairs does not make for easy reportage, especially by journalists who don’t seem able to digest nuance and complexity, let alone reflect meaningfully on them. And so to take issue with any aspect of the debate is interpreted as denying that the Earth has warmed approximately 0.7 degrees Celsius and that humans had some part in that warming.
So what does the BEST study really reveal according to sceptics, and how has it changed things in the post-Climategate world? Montford tells me that BEST ‘doesn’t really change anything’. For Montford, Climategate simply revealed a group of people ‘just being civil servants and trying to hide the fact that they’re not doing much’ and who have ‘commercial incentives to keep everything under wraps’. There is, in fact, little dispute about the temperature changes over the past few decades.
BEST merely confirmed what most sceptics agreed was probably happening anyway. Nonetheless, the BEST story was widely reported as representing a meaningful end to the climate debate. Muller had made ambiguous comments, which were amplified by an incautious sub-editor. A phantom news story appeared out of an uncontroversial study. Journalists were reporting from inside their own heads, not from the real world. And that is an interesting phenomenon, and one which needs some explanation.
Complex debates are reduced to simple, moral stories of ‘scientists versus deniers’, in part because of the shortcomings of news organisations and their journalists’ attachments to the debate. Anxieties about the end of the world give moral orientation to commentators. Taking a stand to ‘save the planet’ elevates journalists who, without the narrative of possible climate disaster, would quite probably struggle to overcome mediocrity and define a sense of purpose for themselves. It looks like bravery, but it is merely vacuity that drives sensationalism.
However, vapid journalism – ‘churnalism’ – is not the whole story. The controversy generated by the treatment of BEST’s result speaks volumes about wider and unrealistic expectations of science. Politicians, activists and scientists are as vulnerable as journalists to the idea that science can supply them with uncorrupted objectivity and unambiguous instruction. Given that Muller himself didn’t seem able to supply clarity to the debate – in spite of the science – it is no surprise that arguments downstream have even greater difficulty getting the story straight. In this case, science, rather than shedding light on the material world, obscures the debate.
Climategate, and other events in late 2009, such as the failure of the climate-change summit in Copenhagen to find asuccessor to the Kyoto protocol, revealed that too much had been invested in science. Science is, after all, produced by humans prone to error and vice. Climate scientists had refused to reveal their data or show their workings, and several alarming claims about climate change, such as the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, were found to be groundless.
This would have all been without consequence had there been more circumspection about the role of science. But rather than reflect on such expectations, the BEST project aimed to reproduce the science with virtue, with ‘transparency’. It made no difference, though, because before it had even been published, BEST became a peg on to which the same old prejudices, myths and politics were hung. BEST came to ‘vindicate climate science’, exonerate climate scientists and force ‘sceptics’ to concede that the Earth had warmed.
BEST says nothing about any of these things, of course. Sceptics weren’t ‘denying’ that the world had warmed. The debate wasn’t divided between climate science and its critics. And ‘Climategate’ remains an embarrassment to those who refused to release data (or concealed it) and its methodology, as Muller explained. Science cannot end the climate debate, because the climate debate has very little to do with science.