Time to put this morality tale on ice

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/11117/</em>

‘Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity. From the frosted plains of the Arctic ice pack to the cool blue caverns of the mountain glaciers, the dripping away of frozen water is the most crystal clear of all the Earth’s warning signals.’

It’s sheer poetry, from the silver-nibbed pen of the Guardian‘s head of environment, Damian Carrington, writing in the Observer last Sunday. It’s also sheer BS.

Carrington continues: ‘Last week saw the annual summer minimum of the Arctic ice cap, which has now shrunk to the lowest level satellites have ever recorded.’ Is this true? Anthony Watts, who runs the sceptical website Watts Up With That?, has a very useful page linking to sea-ice data. Carrington’s claim matches the record of ice extent produced by scientists at the University of Bremen. However, Watts also provides the equivalent data from five other institutions: the International Arctic Research Center/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (IARC-JAXA), the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in the US, the Danish Meteorological Institute, the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. None of these other groups find that 2011 has produced a new record low.

Carrington wanted to give significance to a new record being set. But it seems to have been set only according to one out of six measurements of sea-ice extent. But if he’d mentioned these other measurements, that might have deprived him of his muse. Carrington, the poet, wants to paint a picture of the world, in which its white parts drain away. He wants to convey a feeling, not unlike the disappointment children experience when they see crisp white snow turn into muddy slush. The real picture of the world’s ice, however, requires grown-up eyes.

There may well be a trend towards an ice-free world. But there is still a great deal of sea ice remaining. The 30-year record, which Carrington believes is waving at us, begging for a ceasefire, hardly depicts this drama.

But it gets worse. (It always does.) ‘The lower glaciers are doomed. Kilimanjaro may be bare within a decade, with the Pyrenees set to be ice-free by mid-century and three-quarters of the glaciers in the Alps gone by the same date. As you climb higher, and temperatures drop, global warming will take longer to erode the ice into extinction. But at the “third pole”, in the Himalayas, the ice is melting as evidenced by dozens of swelling milky blue lakes that threaten to burst down on to villages when their ice dams melt.’

As has been widely discussed in recent years, if the ice on the top of Kilimanjaro does disappear, it will not be the consequence of man-made global warming. The glaciers there have been in retreat for longer than can be accounted for by climate change, and the temperatures there are not sufficient to explain the recession as the consequence of melting. The changes in Kilimanjaro are due to changes in local conditions.

As for the Himalayas, Carrington continues: ‘The threat posed is far greater than even this terrifying prospect: a quarter of the world’s people rely on Himalayan meltwater, which helps feed the great rivers that plunge down into Asia. The Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus nourish billions and will eventually lose their spring surges.’

Even if we take at face value the claim that a quarter of the world’s population rely on Himalayan meltwater — which doesn’t seem plausible — why should we imagine that they will always rely on the meltwater in the future, whatever the fate of those glaciers? Even if the glaciers melted — which we now know, as a result of ‘Glaciergate’, is a prospect that has been deferred by some three centuries — rain and snow would still fall on the mountains, and make their way to the sea. It should not be beyond the minds and means of a billion or more people in some of the world’s fastest developing countries to find ways of capturing that water and controlling its use.

So what is Carrington up to with all this revision of some of the most absurd global-warming alarmism that has materialised over the past few years? He writes: ‘Perhaps it is because ice is at the cold heart of all our deepest global-warming fears that climate-change sceptics wield their picks so heavily on it. The error by the publicists and cartographers of the Times Atlas, who stated that Greenland’s ice cover had shrunk by 15 per cent since 1999, prompted a renewed sounding of sirens by climate sceptics who saw another example of rampant alarmism by warming fanatics. In fact, it was climate scientists themselves who sounded the alarm, prompting the Atlas publishers to promise a new map would be inserted.’

Aha! Carrington senses that the ‘climate-change sceptics’ have stolen a march. And rather than letting them steal the show, Carrington rushes to make the claim that it was thescientists who saved the day, after all, spotting the error. But if it is important to state which side’s champions were instrumental in identifying the truth, it ought then to be important to state who precisely was responsible for propagating the misinformation in the first place.

As blogger Andrew Montford has pointed out, it was theGuardian’s environment editor, John Vidal, who wrote: ‘The world’s biggest physical changes in the past few years are mostly seen nearest the poles where climate change has been most extreme. Greenland appears considerably browner round the edges, having lost around 15 per cent, or 300,000 sq km, of its permanent ice cover. Antarctica is smaller following the break-up of the Larsen B and Wilkins ice shelves.’

This was ‘churnalism’. Vidal had merely copied the claim made by the press release announcing the Times Atlas publication.

Rather than quiet reflection on their own errors, Guardianenvironment staff make noisy statements, hoping to recover their credibility. This speaks loudly to the fact that these writers are engaged in a very political debate: they sense that the embarrassment caused by the Times Atlas affair undermines the wholly alarmist argument they have been advancing; they have lost ground to ‘the sceptics’, which must be recovered. Thus, Carrington waxes poetic on what the melting ice portends, before grasping for facts that will give this lyricism some substance. And he grasps for facts that do not bear the weight of the political argument. There doesn’t seem to have been any record set on the Arctic Sea this summer. There is still a great deal of ice left on the world. Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are not victims of climate change. People living beneath glaciers are not so dependent on them. Clinging on to these long-debunked claims is an attempt to keep up appearances: to sustain the view of the debate they have been maintaining for far too long.

It was scientists, not some imagined group of ‘sceptics’, who corrected the Times Atlas error. But in the same way, it isn’t ‘the sceptics’ who embarrassed the alarmist fools at the Times Atlas and at the Guardian; they embarrass themselves.


Admit it: environmentalism was an ugly experiment

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/reviewofbooks_preview/10914</em>

Since becoming an advocate of genetic modification (GM) and nuclear power, Mark Lynas has drawn increasingly hostile criticism from his erstwhile comrades in the green movement. In turn, he has sharpened his criticism of environmentalists for their hostility to technological and economic development. In his new book, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, he attempts to reformulate environmentalism to overcome the excesses that have so far prevented it from saving the planet. This book will no doubt provoke debate, but what is this transformation really about, and is it really based on new ideas or merely the revision of old ones?

Last November, Channel 4 aired What the Green Movement Got Wrong, which featured prominent environmentalists, including Lynas, reflecting on the failures of environmentalism. The film claimed that environmentalists’ opposition to technologies that offered environmentally benign methods of energy and crop production had impeded their aim of creating an ecologically sustainable society. Since then, the debate between pro- and anti-nuclear environmentalists has deepened, exposing the many divisions that exist within the green camp.

That said, the green movement has never really been united by a coherent perspective that could withstand criticism with confidence. Instead, it has been more easily characterised as intransigent, its critics simply dismissed as ‘deniers’ funded by big business. Environmentalism, ignorant to criticism, has thus developed inside an insular, self-regarding bubble. Perhaps only someone from within it could prick that bubble, revealing to its members what those outside it have been telling them for decades.

However, the object of Lynas’s criticism is not the substance or ends of environmentalism but merely its means. The environment has not been saved by green hostility to development, he says. Environmentalism’s
uncompromising demands that we accept lower living standards make green politics unpalatable. Accordingly, he attempts to locate the basis for an environmentalism characterised by realism and pragmatism: what the science really tells us and how it can be most effectively acted upon.

As a result, there is much to agree with in The God Species. Most importantly, Lynas makes a clean break from deep ecology – the idea that ‘nature’ has intrinsic moral value and a ‘right’ to be protected from our ambitions. He rebukes the environmentalism that imagines a return to a pristine nature, and that shows contempt for development as an attempt to ‘play god’ over nature. We should ‘play god’, he says, for the planet’s sake as well as our own comfort. There is a convincing criticism of green demands for austerity and environmentalists’ unrealistic expectations that people should make do with ‘happiness’ rather than material progress. These are the conceits of well-off, middle-class and self-indulgent whingers, Lynas explains. Some of us have been making similar arguments for a very long time.

In spite of some of his accurate criticisms, Lynas fails to get to the substance of environmentalism. We do not find out what takes environmentalists to their bleak view of the world and their low view of humanity. This is a shame, because Lynas is in a unique position to reflect on it, having once thrust a custard pie into Bjorn Lomborg’s face, with the words: ‘That’s for everything you say about the environment which is complete bullshit. That’s for lying about climate change. That’s what you deserve for being smug about everything to do with the environment.’

A decade on, Lynas now emphasises science and pragmatism rather than… erm… pies. It’s worth remembering that Lomborg started out on mission similar to Lynas’s: as an environmentalist, keen to establish the sensible limits of our interaction with the natural world. Before writing The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg aimed to debunk the works of the economist, Julian Simon, but ended up sympathetic to many of his arguments. Lynas, too, now finds himself sympathetic to many of the ideas from the economic right (he calls for the privatisation of all publicly owned water companies, for instance). And like Lynas, Lomborg never ended up ‘denying’ climate change, but instead sought to bring a sense of proportion to the problem, and to put it into context with other problems in the world. That is all it takes to find oneself called a ‘denier’: merely seeking a sense of proportion about environmental problems will put you in the lowest moral category, as Lynas, the ‘Chernobyl death denier’, has now discovered.

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

But doesn’t every green campaigner believe himself to be armed with the science against the dark forces of ideology? Lynas would only have to watch the studio debate that followed What the Green Movement Got Wrong to recall that it was a pantomime, in which each green side claimed to represent pragmatism and science against the other’s ideology. Clearly, the coordinates of the environmental debate are not easily determined as ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, and a deeper reflection on both concepts is necessary to understand it. Lynas, in spite of his claim that ‘science’ has helped him overcome ‘ideology’, fails to provide that insight.

So what is this science which has allowed Lynas to eschew ideology?

Lynas takes his inspiration from the work of Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which aims to offer ‘research for governance of social-ecological systems’. According to Lynas, Rockström and his associates – referred to by Lynas as the ‘planetary boundaries experts group’ – believe that they have identified nine fundamental measures of the planet’s ecological health that human development must not interfere with, if ecological catastrophe is to be avoided.

There is a chapter on each of these nine ‘boundaries’. For example, Lynas argues that we must observe the ‘biodiversity’ boundary by ensuring that fewer than 10 species per year are lost to extinction (against a current rate of over 100). The climate-change boundary means we must maintain atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide below 350 parts per million (ppm). (It’s already higher than that, meaning that society must become carbon negative.) The nitrogen boundary means we must remove no more than 35million tonnes of nitrogen from the atmosphere per year. And so on.

Anyone familiar with environmentalism’s history will recognise that this idea of ecological boundaries owes something to the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits to Growth. Noting the similarity himself, Lynas insists that boundaries are not limits to growth. Growth can exist and continue within these boundaries, he says, adding a fairly convincing argument that he does indeed at least believe that economic growth, technological development and social progress can and should continue within them. But if a boundary isn’t a limit, what is it?

Although Lynas claims that this idea is both new, and founded on new science, the premise of this idea is the same as many other eco- centric perspectives: we live on ‘Spaceship Earth’, ‘Gaia’, in a ‘web of life’. The biosphere, says Lynas, comprises an ecosystem ‘characterised by near infinite complexity: all their nodes of interconnectedness cannot possibly be identified, quantified or centrally planned, yet the product as a whole tends towards balance and self-correction’. In the chapter on biodiversity, Lynas says: ‘By removing species, we damage ecosystems, collapse food webs and ultimately undermine the planetary life-support system on which our species depends as much as any other.’

In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich famously made dire predictions of doom, based on his attempts to model the biosphere and our relation to it, which failed to materialise. Nonetheless, his predictions helped to kickstart the contemporary environmental movement. In answer to Ehrlich’s failure to turn ecology into a predictive material and social science, environmentalists have claimed that what Ehrlich – and Malthus before him – got wrong was simply the ‘when’, not the ‘if’, in the familiar ‘not if, but when’ mantra. The failure, in other words, was merely in underestimating the resilience of ‘the system’, which in spite of Ehrlich’s failures is still presumed to exist. Lynas and his experts have merely sought to better estimate that resilience.

The possibility that that there is no ‘self-regulating system’ of the kind they have imagined does not seem to have occurred to Lynas. He claims that there exists an abundance of evidence for it, but his reasoning that it exists is deductive, rather than based on empirical science actually locating it. Contemplating the endurance of life – or ‘self-regulating systems’, on his view – on Earth for four billion years, through several catastrophic events, Lynas deduces unsoundly that ‘the only plausible explanation is that self-regulation is somehow an emergent property of the system; negative feedbacks overwhelm positive ones and tend to push the Earth towards stability and balance’. There must be a ‘self-regulating system’ producing ‘balance’ merely because Lynas can’t consider an alternative.

But rather than demonstrating that there is a self-regulating system, isn’t there an equally plausible argument that the endurance of life on Earth demonstrates that no such ‘self-regulating system’ exists at all? Life is enduring with or without stasis. Perhaps, rather than occupying sensitive niches, organisms simply survive when they are not pelted by rocks from the cosmos, frozen under ice sheets, buried under molten lava or suffocated by ash – that is, when and where conditions are not hostile to life. Perhaps the ‘balance’ and ‘self-regulation’ witnessed by Lynas and ecologists are merely artefacts of the scale at which they perceive nature: a human life in contrast to geological epochs. Why should it surprise us that life and its seemingly similar conditions endure? Maybe Gaia seems to be at the same time so resilient and so sensitive because she does not exist.

According to Lynas, Gaia is a metaphor for a ‘universal scientific principle’: the emergent property of self-organisation in complex systems. But the metaphor looks far more like those who invoke her than ‘nature’. The preoccupation with ‘self-regulating systems’ seems to coincide with a desire for the regulation and systematisation of human life. We have to presuppose a great deal to take this account of life on Earth at face value, and even more to start organising society around the principle. Indeed, we might now be able to call this ensemble of presuppositions about ‘balance’ and ‘self-organisation’ environmental ideology. Lynas, like many environmentalists, presupposes both balance and the system which produces it. They claim evidence for it in science, but the claim precedes the science. Scientists have looked for Gaia, but they have not found her. Perhaps scientists and science are not so immune to ideology, after all.

Reading each of the chapters on planetary boundaries puts one in mind of an attempt to use the concept of irreducible complexity to make an argument for ‘intelligent design’. Rather than being an attempt to digest scientific research, it seems more an attempt to bombard the reader with endless salvoes of facts. The problem with using science in this way is that it is presented without its caveats, its context or the limitations of its design. Rather than developing a critical understanding of the issues, the reader is encouraged to sit passively through tales of tragic environmental degradation, followed by the remedy.

This has been the environmentalist’s device of choice, because complex technical ideas hide political and ethical ideas – the remedy – behind scientific authority. And this is the biggest problem of the environmental debate. To take issue with the ethics or politics of environmentalism or its interpretation of science is seen as equivalent to denying scientific evidence. To point out that science requires interpretation is seemingly to suggest that there is no such thing as material reality. Environmentalists seem to imagine that science is a direct conduit from pure objectivity to humanity – it issues instructions about how we ought to live.

Lynas does not escape these problems. The God Species is littered with complaints about ‘deniers’ and their ideological motivations. In one section, Lynas complains about ‘the [political] right’s tendency to downplay or deny the environmental consequences of this human great leap forward’, and asks, why they do not ‘just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental impacts’. And it is perhaps this question that most reveals Lynas’ naivety about ideology, and his failure to reflect on his own position.

Nobody is ‘denying the environmental consequences’ of human progress. Nobody could look at a river oozing with toxic sludge and say that it wasn’t pollution. What would be at issue is what kind of problem that pollution is. For a population that depended on the river for sustenance, its contamination would indeed be a huge problem. For a population which has no real use for the river, it is less of a problem. (Indeed, it may even be a convenient solution to the problem of what to do with all that toxic sludge, until some better means of disposal is developed.) What differs between perspectives is not necessarily assent to or denial of ‘facts’, but priorities, values and ways of interpreting them. If you believe that the planet is a highly sensitive self-regulating system that produces balance, it follows that you’d be more concerned about pollution than somebody who felt more confident about the world’s resilience.

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

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

Putting humanity in a kangaroo court

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/10549/</em>

You may not have noticed, but last week you were a co-defendant in a court case. In Stockholm, the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability met at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The event websiteproclaimed that ‘hjumanity [sic] will be on trial as the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium brings together almost 20 Nobel Laureates, a number of leading policy makers and some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and experts on global sustainability.’

The charge against us, humanity, was that ‘our vast imprint on the planet’s environment has shifted the Earth into a new geological period labelled the “Anthropocene” – the Age of Man’. But this was a showtrial. The guilty verdict had been written before the court had even assembled. ‘The prosecution will therefore maintain that humanity must work towards global stewardship around the planet’s intrinsic boundaries, a scientifically defined space within which we can continue to develop’, claimed Professor Will Steffen, showtrial ‘prosecutor’ and executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. The website and literature accompanying the symposium made no mention of the defence’s argument. Indeed, why would a Symposium on Global Sustainability invite a defence that challenged the premises it intended to promote?

The ‘trial’ was merely a stunt, of course, designed to make a stuffy, pompous and self-serving enterprise such as this more appealing to the media and the hoi polloi it sought to prosecute. It was one of a number of sessions at the event, each intended to qualify the sustainability agenda with the expertise of its participants. But this circle-jerk, show-trial symposium revealed far more about its members and the hollowness of the sustainability agenda than it revealed about humanity.

A trial implies a question mark over the guilt of the accused. A showtrial on the other hand, is a performance designed to serve some agenda or purpose, to make political capital from the trumped-up crimes of the defendant, whose ‘guilt’ has already been established. And so it is with the litany of charges served against humanity: we are ‘influencing critical Earth system processes’, ‘pushing the planet out of the 10,000-year Holocene environment’, causing ‘irreversible and abrupt changes’. These are our transgressions. They were recited in the courtroom melodrama, not to encourage scrutiny of ourselves, of society, or even really our relationship with nature, but to elevate the judges and their agenda. After all, without criminals, there can be no judges.

There is a strange irony to the spectacle of the world’s best thinkers putting humanity on trial. At the same time as they sit in judgement of humanity, those who seemingly best represent its virtues distance themselves from it. This act reflects a disconnect between the world’s elite – the establishment, in other words – and the rest of humanity. It is a practical demonstration of the extent to which contempt for humanity has been absorbed into establishment thinking.

Environmentalists often find it hard to understand why their arguments and actions are taken as a reflection of deep anti-humanism. But the symposium epitomises the degradation of the concept of humanity. It’s not merely the symbolic act of the Great and Good sitting above the rest of us and passing judgement; anti-humanism runs through their discussion. The showtrial diminishes the defendant – humanity – by making the plaintiff the Earth. There are only two ways this can be made sensible: either the Earth has characteristics that qualify it as a ‘person’ deserving of legal status, or humanity does not have characteristics that make it exceptional, distinct from nature. Sure enough, across the bottom of the symposium’s brochure in large print are the words ‘The world is facing a tangle of entwined challenges. It is time to recognize that we are part of nature.’

More depth on this central message of the symposium is given in the outline of its themes: ‘A central challenge for the twenty-first century is to respect the dynamic environmental boundaries that define a safe planetary operating space for humanity and to guide the human enterprise onto trajectories that develop within these boundaries. Collective action, flexible institutions and active stewardship of our globally interconnected social-ecological system is required to ensure a prosperous future for humanity.’ The themes also declare: ‘It is time to fully realize that our societies and economies are integrated parts of the biosphere, and start accounting for and governing natural capital.’

The attack on humanity would not leave such a bad taste in the mouth, were it not so nebulous. What does it mean to ‘respect dynamic environmental boundaries’, let alone identify them? Sustainability advocates claim ground for their argument in science, but the imperative that we ‘respect’ environmental boundaries precedes any real understanding of what these boundaries are, or whether they even exist. ‘Dynamic boundaries’ are in fact goalposts that can shift according to the needs of the sustainability agenda and its advocates, not a fact about the material world. Anything, including a caveman lifestyle, could be deemed ‘unsustainable’. But most importantly, what is forgotten by the symposium’s concatenation of incoherent and pseudo-scientific eco-concepts is the dynamism of humanity.

Instead of seeing humans as creative, and able to respond to ‘a changing world’ without their guidance, the laureates presuppose that we exist within a tightly ‘entwined’ relationship with nature. Our unguided movement within this relationship unsettles the mythological balance that nature’s providence rests on; nature is dynamic, but we are not. Thus we bring disequilibrium into the world at our own peril, like Adam and Eve thrust out of Eden for bringing sin to paradise. Humanity has brought chaos into creation, and we are now burdened with the consequences. And it is from this idea of a perilous relationship with nature that the members of the symposium hope to create a basis for reorganising society, with themselves as its stewards.

The sentence handed to us by our judges is a series of emergency and longer-term measures that humanity must observe if we are to survive. Many of these demands are familiar noises about ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’, meeting Millennium Development Goals, and increasing the efficiency of productive activity. But more telling is the demand for the ‘strengthening of Earth system governance’, which calls for a range of institutions to be created or given greater power to ‘integrate the climate, biodiversity and development agendas’ and ‘address the legitimate interests of future generations’. There’s also the call to enact a ‘new contract between science and society’, which will launch a ‘research initiative on the Earth system and global sustainability’, and ‘increase scientific literacy’.

At face value, the symposium and the sustainability agenda are about saving the planet. However, the desire for a ‘sustainable’ relationship between society and nature looks much more like nervousness about the establishment’s relationship with the rest of society. The institutional apparatus and power sought by the Nobel laureates through the sustainability agenda is about a search for authority and legitimacy: to overcome the gap that exists between the establishment and the rest of humanity without actually closing it.

We don’t have to stretch our imaginations to get a glimpse of what these new institutions and powers – the object of the sustainability agenda’s ambition – will look like and what they are really about. The mock trial of humanity allowed the laureates to play out their fantasy in which humanity’s guilt is turned into political power. In this intertwined relationship, there is no need of democracy; political power is simply justified on the basis of humanity’s guilt and the inevitability of catastrophe. The laureates imagine themselves in a state administrated by Plato’s philosopher kings. Us mere plebs are deemed incapable of determining things for ourselves. They appoint themselves, in case our base ambitions, desires and needs get the better of us and we send the world into ruin.

It is no more meaningful to try humanity for crimes against nature than it is to try nature for crimes against humanity – disease, flood, famine and so on. In the Middle Ages, all kinds of animals were summoned to courts to be tried. The Enlightenment saw the formulation of a more sophisticated understanding of nature and humanity: we created our own future, and our own history; the antithesis to the idea that we are mystically ‘entwined’ with gods, monsters, and other personalities representing ‘nature’. Those ideas in which humanity was understood as exceptional and apart from nature are now being abandoned by the very group of people who ought to be carrying the legacy of the Enlightenment and the humanism that developed within it.

The idea of a closely intertwined, inflexible relationship with nature that the Laureates prefer creates a prison in which no expression of humanity can be seen as a worthwhile end in itself. Everything must be judged by the imperatives of sustainability and its institutions. ‘Our predicament can only be redressed by reconnecting human development and global sustainability, moving away from the false dichotomy that places them in opposition. […] In an interconnected and constrained world, in which we have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, economic development, and social justice.’

Such is the extent of the anti-humanism of the sustainability agenda that meeting the most basic of human needs is not a ‘good’ unless it has been assessed for its environmental impact. It is not humanity in general, but these sustainability advocates that deserve to be in the dock.


Fukushima: why greens turned on each other

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/10368/</em>

The coverage of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is dominated by the discussion of ‘levels of radiation’. Run-of-the-mill catastrophes – earthquakes, tsunamis, that kind of thing – provide rolling news networks with dramatic images to underpin hours of glib commentary and speculation about what will happen next. But radiation, being invisible without the right equipment, makes for its own order of media phenomenon.

Instead of depictions of awesome power destroying civilisation, radiation generates discussion around images of contaminated food and workers in protective clothing pointing Geiger counters at children’s thyroid glands. This is the backdrop to an endless recital of a litany about cancer, radiation sickness, corrupt energy companies and their political servants, and which scientists we should trust.

You might think, then, that when ‘levels of radiation’ turn out to be infinitesimally small, morbid speculation and radiophobia might cease. Last week, a press release from the UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) announced that ‘the minutest traces of iodine-131 associated with events at the Fukushima nuclear facility’ had been detected in Glasgow and Oxfordshire, but that there was no risk to health. Rather than offering a sober perspective on risk, however, the finding provoked yet more speculation from the media, activists and politicians.

‘“Fukushima nuclear plant” radiation found at UK sites’, saidthe BBC. Beneath the attention-grabbing headline, however, the claim is given statistical perspective: ‘a child’s exposure in one day would be less than one ten-thousandth of what they would receive from naturally occurring background radiation in a day’. In other words, during a normal day, an individual is exposed to background radiation equivalent to nearly 30 years of exposure to the additional radiation from Fukushima now ‘found at UK sites’. The HPA press release indicated that there was no risk to human health, and the article correctly quoted the HPA, yet its author found it necessary to talk about the accumulation of radioactive substances in the thyroid gland, leading to cancer. The attempt to put risk into numerical context is defeated by such emphasis on the danger of vastly greater concentrations of the substance. It’s less rational than talking about the risks of drowning in an article about the accidental spillage of a glass of water.

‘Fukushima radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’, reported the Guardian, followed by a half-hearted attempt to emphasise the HPA’s advice that there was no risk present to human health. This included repeating the HPA’s ‘warning’ that ‘radiation levels in the UK could rise’. However, it’s hard to construe as a ‘warning’ the advice that even raised levels ‘will be significantly below any level that could cause harm to public health’. This was followed by a story that Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, had claimed that the HPA had delayed publishing their advice in order to prevent causing embarrassment to the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment – headed by erstwhile chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir David King – which was due to make a public call for investment in nuclear energy.

King once remarked that ‘climate change poses a bigger threat than terrorism’, that it is the ‘biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had’, and that foreign spies and US energy interests were behind attempts to undermine public confidence in climate science and the attempt to build an international agreement at Copenhagen. There is something almost comic and farcical to the way in which King and the Smith School now seem to be hoist by their own nuclear petard. The alarm they have helped to unleash in the climate debate has breached its containment, and now threatens to contaminate their own project. Because, once you speculate about energy companies’ clandestine lobbying effort and their influence over the political agenda in the face of a looming catastrophe – as King has – it’s difficult to claim that another mode of producing energy offers a panacea. The price of the politics of fear is the trust in public institutions of all kinds and their advice, be they corporations, scientific bodies and advisers, independent regulatory authorities, government departments, and politicians.

Salmond is wrong, of course. Delaying the publication of the HPA’s advice that the putative ‘fallout’ from Fukushima presented no risk could serve no purpose. Unless, that is, Salmond calculated that radiophobia would not be mediated by the HPA’s assurances, and would thus create an opportunity to put distance between his own party, with its renewable energy and emphatically anti-nuclear policies, and the apparently ‘pro-nuclear’ Labour Party at the upcoming elections.

If that’s the calculation that Salmond made, then he was absolutely correct. Writing in the Guardian, John Vidal quotes a former scientific adviser to Gorbachev during the Chernobyl accident: ‘When you hear “no immediate danger” [from nuclear radiation] then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.’ The accident at Fukushima is ‘potentially worse’ than the accident at Chernobyl, claims Vidal, while complaining that his erstwhile green comrades have compared those who question nuclear safety to ‘climate change deniers’. Ultimately, however, the question for Vidal is ‘who can we trust?’

The ‘levels of radiation’, are, after all, not the issue. It doesn’t matter that public health agencies have attempted to reassure the public that these levels are insignificant. In such a febrile atmosphere, the very fact that such a statement was made at all seems to let the safety cat out of the nuclear bag; in the minds of anti-nuclear campaigners and politicians, declaring that Fukushima has had no negative impact on the UK identifies the HPA as partial, rather than independent. Any attempt to put perspective on the magnitude of the accident is to be seen to take sides.

From any rational perspective, the quantities of radioactive material found in the UK from Japan are not worthy of comment, except perhaps to those who take an interest in the design of incredibly sensitive radiological monitoring hardware. A spokesperson from the HPA confirmed that the quantities involved were ‘at the limits of detection’. But that being the case, why would an agency concerned with public health make a statement about something that is of no concern to public health? There was a ‘lot of [public] interest about whether the radiation had reached the UK yet’, he told me, ‘we had found a result, and felt that we should publish it’.

There really was no story. So why the headlines? Why the discussion about cancer, and the danger of nuclear power? And indeed, why the coverage at all? It was not the discovery of a risk to health that led to the HPA issuing its statement, but the perception that there was an appetite for information. The information, rather than offering reassurance, seemed instead to offer an opportunity to escalate the level of alarm. It was as if policy statements and articles about ‘levels of radiation’ were written before they were measured and their significance established, with such trifling details merely tagged-on as an afterthought – a caveat, to excuse their authors from overt scaremongering.

It perhaps makes no sense to even try to quantify the risks of nuclear power while the debate is so dominated by such a disproportionate sensitivity. Thanks to the precautionary approach, the mere theoretical possibility of an accident haunts any calculation of risks. Indeed, it is anxiety itself which provides the substance of, for example, the argumentfor nuclear power from David King, the Smith School, and George Monbiot: nuclear will save us from climate change. What this anxiety speaks about is much less the merits and demerits of one form of energy production over another, and much more the inability of public figures to make arguments without recourse to fearmongering. In this environment, any argument that puts risk into statistical perspective – or criticises the alarm generated by sensational copy, anti-nuclear activists and interventions from public-health bureaucracies – looks like advocacy. And advocacy is, as Vidal and Salmond seem to have it, partial, interested, and probably gambling with public safety for profit. The only people we can trust are those who speak about the looming danger. Only crises can legitimise seemingly objective policymaking.

The expression ‘going nuclear’ used to depict the escalation of an individual’s rage, subsuming all those who stood near him or her. A more timely use of the expression might describe the absurd sensitivity to infinitesimal risks, leading to a drama that its cause did not warrant. The issue is not really what provokes the reaction, then – in this case, the non-story about almost no radioactive substance – but why that reaction is so explosive. It tears apart the relationship between radical and establishment environmentalists forged in the heat of panic about climate change. It threatens to undermine the government’s energy programme. And it turns naked fearmongering back on the fearmongerer. Suddenly, Vidal is comparing his erstwhile green comrades with ‘climate change deniers’, and Monbiot calls the UK’s first Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, ‘wildly illogical’.

What the reaction here in the UK to events at Fukushima reveals, then, is the instability of those perspectives and the crisis-prone nature of risk-averse politics.

Making mountains out of meltdowns

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/10292/</em>

The destruction caused by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, and the tsunami which followed it,were not momentous enough for much of the world’s press.

Thousands of people are feared dead. Tens of thousands are missing or injured. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes. Buildings, vehicles of all kinds and civil infrastructure have been smashed to pieces and swept away. But the story that has dominated the news in the past 48 hours is the loss of control of two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In contrast to the devastation across Japan, however, the accident has – at the time of writing – so far caused only 15 injuries, just one of which appears to be serious, and a handful of suspected cases of exposure to radiation, none of which appear to be serious. So why is there such a preoccupation with the nuclear power plant?

‘Fears of catastrophe as nuclear plant explodes’, ran the headline in The Sunday Times. Yet the explosion took place long after concerns were raised about the loss of control of reactor 1. And the plant did not explode. There was an explosion at the plant, a big difference when we consider that none of the reactors or their containments were damaged. (A similar thing appears to have occurred this morning at reactor 3.) ‘Thousands feared dead after blast at Fukushima No. 1 plant in Japan’, screamed the Herald Sun. The headline isliterally true, of course. Thousands are dead and there was an explosion; but nobody has died as a consequence of the explosion. The low-quality journalism and pointless commentary continued across the media and internet, but it is epitomised by this line from The Sunday Times’ multi-page gore-fest: ‘The ghosts of Chernobyl and Five Mile Island (sic)hung in the air.’

This kind of lurid, almost prurient prose is standard fare in coverage of disasters of this magnitude. Anxious to file copy, yet without the necessary facts to make sense of a situation that is by definition chaotic, wild speculation is the journalist’s displacement activity. It’s not so much that the ‘ghosts’ of nuclear accidents past haunt the site of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, but that they haunt the heads of lazy hacks, who have no better way of expressing their own poorly-informed view of the situation. Anybody could make such a statement. A concatenation of barely-understood factoids about nuclear energy and the unfolding crisis created a drama that barely resembled what was actually happening, based on the simple equation ‘Nuclear power station + explosion = Chernobyl’.

The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 is the event by which all nuclear accidents will be naturally measured, unless something worse ever happens. But it is not a useful standard. The chain of events there, too, involved the loss of control of a nuclear reactor, but of a different design. The much smaller Japanese reactor sits in a containment chamber made from steel several inches thick, unlike its Russian predecessor, which was less stable, and operated by inexperienced technicians. The two countries’ cultures also vary greatly, with safety and public accountability being far higher up the public agenda in a democracy. Safety protocols in the West are constantly pored over and contested in public, in a way that was simply not possible in the Soviet Union.

The fact that different and superior reactor designs and safety protocols make it highly unlikely that Fukushima Daiichi 1 will ‘do a Chernobyl’ does not stop the speculation that it will, and is about to, however. And just as journalists with nothing better to do are happy to cook up salacious copy, so are anti-nuclear and environmental campaigners keen to exploit the anxiety it creates.

Within hours of the incident, Greenpeace had declared that ‘Nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima were never designed to withstand a meltdown of the reactor core and won’t’. Crispin Aubery, an anti-nuclear campaigner at Hinkley Point in England – site of two long-standing nuclear stations and a possible site for a new plant – told local news reporters, ‘The events in Japan provide yet more evidence that nuclear power is unsafe… We should immediately shelve plans for any new reactors in this country, including the Hinkley C proposal.’ Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a US anti-nuclear weapons pressure group, told CNN: ‘This is going to go down in history as one of the three greatest nuclear incidents, if it stops now.’

But if the accident really does get recorded as the third-worst civil nuclear accident, it will be yet further testament to the safety of nuclear power. Even the second-worst event, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979, caused no deaths, and exposed people nearby to a dose of radiation no more significant than an x-ray at a hospital. In spite of Chernobyl, nuclear power – even after an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, a resulting tsunami, and numerous powerful after-shocks on a nuclear plant about to celebrate its fortieth birthday – remains safer than many other, routine aspects of daily life.

This must say something about a hugely distorted perception of disaster, and an unchallenged desire to exploit it. The earthquake and tsunami have been far worse for Japan than Chernobyl was for people in the former Soviet Union. Only around 50 deaths can definitively attributed to Chernobyl. An official report into the aftermath in 2006 suggested that perhaps as many as 9,000 more might eventually result, over the course of decades, but this was at best an educated guess. Very little damage was done to basic infrastructure outside of the plant and the other three reactors at the Chernobyl site were up-and-running again after just seven months. Compare that to the thousands of deaths already confirmed and the sight of whole towns being swept away by last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Yet the media and anti-nuclear campaigners seem bent on priming themselves and their audience for ‘another Chernobyl’, as though it would somehow be worse than the events that have preceded it. Forget the scale of destruction and human cost caused by the earthquake and tsunami; the detection of radioisotopes at the plant ‘heralds the beginning of an ecological and human tragedy’, wrote Brian Vastag in the Washington Post. Across the coverage of the event, a sense of proportion is missing from the commentary, which fails to make the distinction between, for instance, a release of small amounts of slightly radioactive material, and a catastrophic meltdown of a reactor, its explosion, the widespread contamination of land, and the deaths of dozens of people.

Whatever happens to the reactors, we can expect even more columns of mawkish prose, written on the hoof, that will continue to distort the sensible perception of nuclear power. Anti-nuclear campaigners will continue to say that an acceptably safe form of nuclear power is not possible.

To this, it should be pointed out that earthquakes and tsunamis cause much greater problems for humans than nuclear power ever has. Furthermore, where nuclear power is a possibility ie, in wealthy economies, the effect of earthquakes and tsunamis is mitigated, and their consequences more easily ameliorated than in poorer regions. The 2004 Asian tsunami, and the earthquake in Haiti last year, were smaller in magnitude than last Friday’s events, but came at a much higher human cost than in Japan. Poverty, and the earth’s natural forces, are far more dangerous than our attempts to protect ourselves from them.

Scepticism is not an ‘attack on science’

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/10148/

Sir Paul Nurse, the new president of the Royal Society, hasfollowed his predecessors, Martin Rees and Bob May, by making a loud public statement about the climate debate. Nurse claimed in a recent edition of BBC2’s science programme, Horizon, that science is under attack, and that public trust in scientific theories has been eroded. Like his predecessors, however, Nurse fails to understand why partial statements from the president of the Royal Society do more to impede the progress of debate than move it on.

Although it was advertised as a discussion about an ‘attack on science’, the Horizon film was dominated by the climate change debate. In Nurse’s view, the public are less convinced by climate change than they ought to be. This has followed an ‘attack on science’, which Nurse explained in a somewhat one-sided account of the ‘Climategate’ affair, the leaking of thousands of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in November 2009. But as ugly, pointless and unpleasant as that affair was for those involved, if there is something to be said about the character of the debate about climate change, it is that raised passions and low tactics are not unique to either putative ‘side’.

The mistake Nurse made in his treatment of the climate debate is to imagine that it is divided over a simple claim that ‘climate change is happening’. It is this polarisation of the debate into simple categories – scientists verses deniers – that obscures the real substance of debate, its context and its nuances. The reality is that disagreements about climate change are matters of degree, not true-or-false. In turn, disagreements about the consequences of climate change and the proper policy response are also matters of degree.

Thus, the debate is multi-dimensional, and controversy exists throughout. But for Nurse, identifying the areas of disagreement and offering up an analysis isn’t the point. Instead, he takes for granted that ‘the science is in’, and wonders why trust in scientific authority seems to have been eroded. One reason for this loss of trust just might be that controversies and other inconveniences are swept aside by the polarisation of the debate, leaving a perception that authoritarian impulses are hiding behind scientific consensus. But to point this out would not fill an episode of Horizon. Instead, after a rather feeble retelling of the consensus, the film showed Nurse going after the deniers, who, he suspects, are responsible for undermining public trust in science.

This crusade took Nurse to the home of outspoken climate sceptic and Telegraph journalist James Delingpole, who disputes the existence of the consensus and its value to science. The film was clearly constructed around this moment, at which Nurse seemingly delivers a coup de grace to the deniers: ‘Say you had cancer, and you went to be treated, there would be a consensual position on your treatment.’ This ‘doctor analogy’ appears to leave Delingpole uncomfortable, and stuck for words: ‘Can we talk about Climategate… I don’t accept your analogy’, he responds.

Whatever the reason for Delingpole’s hesitance, there are many good reasons for not accepting Nurse’s analogy. The most obvious being that the climate is not like the human body; climate change is not like cancer; climate scientists are not like oncologists; and climate-science research institutions are not like hospitals. But worse is the fact that Nurse’s thought experiment defeats its purpose. He’s asking us to believe that there has been an attack on science and that trust in science is being eroded. But if we presume that Delingpole is forced by the analogy to accept that he should trust the consensus formed by scientists, we must conclude that science is not under attack. An ‘attack on science’ would reject both climate change and medicine.

Nurse’s reasoning is that if we’re not scientists, we are not able to follow the complexities of climate science, and so take arguments about the climate on trust. But newspapers, he observed, are full of contradictory messages. ‘Political opinions’ are expressed through ‘lurid headlines’, causing ‘an unholy mix of the media and politics… distorting the proper reporting of science, and that’s a real danger for us if science is to have its proper impact on society’. Perhaps worse, the internet allows ‘conspiracy theories to compete with peer-reviewed science’. The concern here is that trust in the wrong source prevents the feckless public from responding to the correct messages about climate change, sending us all to our doom. Instead, people should trust in science, because unlike the politically driven newspapers, and internet lunatics, its authority ‘comes from evidence and experiment’.

But there is no attack on science. Even climate-change deniers will still take the advice of oncologists, and will still express criticism of climate-change policies in scientific terms. What Nurse fails to recognise is the difference between science as aprocess and science as an institution. The reputation of the former is intact; but, as I’ve argued before here on spiked, scientific institutions undermine their own credibility when they interfere in a one-sided way in such debates, regardless of any effort by ‘deniers’. Then, the members of these institutions resort to making BBC documentaries to wonder out loud why no one trusts them anymore.

Aside from the technical complexity that Nurse describes, and the multiple dimensions to the climate debate that he ignores, there is the context of the climate debate to be considered. The background to the climate debate is a collapse of trust in public institutions of many kinds. Echoing this collapse in public reason, Nurse urges, ‘trust no one, trust only what the experiments and the data tell you’. But isn’t this also the message from climate sceptics, who accuse institutional, official science of corruption and political motivation?

It would seem that the sceptics have a good point here. Climate change has come to the rescue of the forgotten old academic department, the tired political establishment, and the disoriented journalist. The possibility of ecological catastrophe injects moral purpose back into public life, in spite of a collapse in trust. Accordingly, local authorities and national governments have, in recent years, transformed their purpose; now their goal is to monitor your bins rather than provide public services. Powerful supranational political and financial institutions have been created to ‘meet the challenge’ of climate change. And these political changes have for the most part occurred without any semblance of democracy; it is presupposed that these organisational changes to public life are legitimate because they are seemingly intended to do good.

Nurse might argue that this reorganisation of public life around environmental issues comes with the blessing of scientific authority, and that it is science which identified the need to adjust our lifestyles and economy. But the greening of domestic and international politics preceded any science. The concept of ‘sustainability’ was an established part of the international agenda long before the IPCC produced an ‘unequivocal’ consensus on climate change; indeed, the IPCC was established to create a consensus for political ends. Nurse, nearly recognising science’s role in the legitimisation of such political ecology, worries about loss of trust. As he noted in the Horizon film, if scientists are not ‘open about everything they do then the conversation will be dominated by people driven by politics and ideology’.

But the conversation is already driven by politics and ideology; it’s simply that Nurse does not recognise environmentalism as political or ideological, and he does not notice himself reproducing environmental politics and ideology. The loss of trust he now observes is not the consequence of politics and ideology, but the all-too-visible attempt to hide politics behind science and highly emotive images of catastrophe. If the presidents of science academies want their trust back, they will first have to admit to the politicisation of their function in an atmosphere of distrust. Nullius in verba, indeed.

A tedious dollop of eco‑propaganda

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/10095/

A large wall of projected graphics greets you as you enter the London-based Science Museum’s new exhibition,Atmosphere: Exploring Climate Science. Disembodied voices read the words that appear across the monolith: ‘Science can show us that greenhouse gasses are increasing… Science can show us that the carbon cycle is being disrupted… Science can show us what’s already changing…’ But for all the talk of science, it was eco-propaganda on display.

Across print and online media, and throughout London’s transport infrastructure and beyond, an advertising campaign invites visitors to the exhibition, promising ‘a fresh and exciting way to make sense of the climate’. The truth is rather more disappointing: the exhibition has not really been designed to introduce minds to a new avenue of discovery; its purpose is to get them to be obedient to environmental diktats.

The first exhibit is a multi-user game called FLOOD ALERT, the objective of which is to maintain London’s flood defences from rising sea levels. Yawn. It had been abandoned by its previous players, whose score card was still on the screen: ‘Climate change turned out worse than you planned for. Bad planning can cost homes and lives.’ Science, nil; alarmism, one. The second exhibit is another interactive installation, which asks me to wave my arms around in front of the screen, in an effort to ‘move’ energy from the sun to the Earth. Meanwhile, simple facts about the transport of heat throughout the atmosphere appear. Next, interactive panels throughout the gallery offer to serve up facts about the climate, and information about a number of artefacts from climate science arranged between interactive exhibits; a slice of a tree, an ice core sample, a flask for taking gas samples. Riveting. I press a few buttons, and I am taken to a page which aims to answer the question, ‘what’s the difference between weather and climate?’.

I notice a trend developing. It seems that hi-tech, expensive, interactive exhibits are designed to hold the player’s attention, while climate-change factoids are delivered on the sly. This trend is borne out by the remainder of the exhibition. Another game invites me to first fire warmth from the sun through the gaps in clouds, and then to move particles of CO2 in the path of heat energy escaping out to space. Thus I get a lesson in atmospheric science in return for playing a rather dull game.

At the other end of the gallery, yet another interactive touch-screen display offers to serve up information about a large ‘house of cards’ mural painted on the wall. I press the button promising the answer, ‘why did the artist make this artwork?’: ‘House of Cards highlights the fragility of the interconnected system we live within. David says “My artwork is a scaled-up drawing of a house of cards. The metaphor I have used is quite a straightforward one: our atmosphere and environment are in a very delicate balance; a balance that it could be disastrous for us to upset.”’

Oh, the artistic subtlety! A house of cards! So much for ‘art’, but what about the scientific basis for the claim that there exists ‘balance’, that it is ‘delicate’, and that our security is premised on this delicate balance being sustained? The notion of our existing in a fragile, dependent relationship with the planet’s natural processes seems to owe much more to a pre-existing sense of anxiety and insecurity about the humanworld than to anything produced by science.

Science – or ‘science’ – is merely the means by which this anxiety is expressed. Move forward through the exhibition, for instance, and another interactive display offers video vox pops of people in the street, including one woman saying that ‘without the government introducing some sort of nanny-state type initiatives, I don’t think that people will be pushing towards those things…’. Another game offers me the opportunity to play the part of a virtual energy minister – a kind of eco Sim City in which you can build different types of power plant, from tidal to coal, to cope with the virtual city’s energy demand and its emissions targets. This exhibition, much as climate-change alarmism, simply isn’t about science; it’s about establishing a basis – an ethic – for the management of public life.

The really exciting stuff in the Science Museum, the things I remember from my own childhood visits, are elsewhere in the building. The kinetic ‘hands-on’ exhibits, the working mechanical telephone exchange, the model of the first particle accelerator and, of course, the space gallery, are all far more interesting. The difference between these galleries andAtmosphere is that they seem to articulate what it is possible to do with science, rather than what it is necessary to do according to science. In the climate-change gallery, science is morally instructive; elsewhere science seems to respond to human needs, wants and ambition.

The interactive displays attempt to make the scientific content appealing. But they fail. Today’s children are not as easily confused about the medium and the message asAtmosphere‘s designers seem to think. Wrapping dry technical fact in hi-tech media hardware does little to stimulate an interest in the message in the way that young people can be encouraged to explore science by experiencing something with a genuine ‘wow factor’: this item took men to the moon; this was the machine that made communication possible across entire continents. The reality of science is that it is deadly boring until a person has developed an interest in both it and the world.

Back in the exhibition, a foreign-exchange student re-appropriates the space to take a nap. Younger children press screens randomly, desperately hoping to make the ‘interactive’ exhibits yield something interesting. Adults browse the screens with faux interest. The evidence is clear, the debate is over: climate change is not, as has been claimed by many, ‘our moon landing’, nor even the ‘defining issue of our generation’. The failure of the attempt to reinvent today in the terms of the Kennedy era is demonstrated by the endurance of the space gallery, seen in contrast to the already passé and frankly naff exhibits of Atmosphere.

The contrast between the space race and today’s low aspirations epitomised by Atmosphere invites a further comparison of the prevailing ideologies of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and their propaganda. For all the world’s deep and dangerous problems that belied the optimism surrounding the Apollo programme, and of Sputnikand Yuri Gagarin’s missions, they remain uplifting reminders of what is possible. The contemporary preoccupation with climate change, on the other hand, yields only joyless propaganda: an antithesis to the progress promised in the past.

Atmosphere fails in its own right as an interesting exhibition of science. As an attempt to engage the public, however, it is a superb exhibition of environmental dogma, of the establishment’s condescension and its disorientation and lack of purpose. ‘Science’ fills the void. It turns today’s politicians into mediums bearing important messages. It makes today’s bland politics seem responsive to an urgent necessity. And it creates stories to turn hollow political agendas into progressive visions of the future.

Cancun: scavenging around for scientific fact

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/9986/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the greens really got wrong

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/9868/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sideways step from climate panic to Malthus

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/9825

It has been an annus horribilis for the environmental activists and politicians who insist that the world needs to act on climate change. There was ‘Climategate’, the leak from the University of East Anglia of compromising email discussions between climate researchers; questions about the provenance of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); concerns about the competence of IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri; and the failure to find a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen.

These events have dented confidence in climate science. Claims that ‘the debate is over’ seem to have given way to an acknowledgement that doubt exists. Reflecting these developments, the Royal Society – Britain’s most prestigious scientific body – has issued a new short guide to the science of climate change that is substantially more equivocal than its previous statements. Some have welcomed this change in the character of the climate debate, but there isn’t much to celebrate because the ideas underpinning climate anxiety have not been challenged.

Not so long ago, climate change was – according to some – ‘the defining issue of our era’. On the face of it, the special domestic and supranational political and economic institutions – the IPCC, the Kyoto process, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, and so on – that followed such claims were a response to the ‘defining issue’. But to sceptics of these political ideas – if not the science – this was less about constructing ‘global solutions to global problems’ and more about the fact that global solutions need global problems. The job of establishing the basis for these political projects fell to science. But science is fickle. It turned out that the defining issue of our era was not so easy to define.

In 2005, during the peak of climate hysteria and the drive to create an international political response to climate change, the Royal Society entered the political debate forcefully and published A Guide to the Facts and Fictions About Climate Change – a report which spoke unequivocally about official climate science and those who dared to challenge it.

The guide declared: ‘There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emission. Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded.’

The science academy had attached itself to a side in the climate war. It was now not only identifying the basis on which the climate-related political institutions would be built – defining the defining issue – it was identifying the enemy of that process and engaging them in battle. But rather than cementing the foundations of these political institutions, the Royal Society had undermined them. The aggressive position it had assumed had shown that science is a corruptible institution. The claim was that the ‘deniers’ had particular motivations, and so produced bad science. But the Society’s position rested on the assumption that climate scientists were unimpeachably honest.

By the time the Society published Climate Change Controversies: A Simple Guide in 2007, it had polarised the climate debate into camps divided by simple, cartoonish categories: ‘scientists’ and ‘deniers’. One side was dispassionate, objective, and not motivated in the slightest by financial interests or political ideas; the other consisted of nothing less than scientific prostitutes peddling lies. But most of all, the Royal Society had created an expectation that science could produce unambiguous and instructive moral and political statements.

The events since winter 2009 have demonstrated that these standards and expectations were unrealistic. Science did not consist of pure, virtuous individuals, who were impartially and dispassionately informing the debate with unimpeachable evidence. Science could not provide a basis for the construction of new, climate-change-solving political institutions. Claims had been made on behalf of the scientific consensus which simply didn’t stand up to closer inspection.

The new report issued by the Royal Society at the end of last month is more circumspect than its predecessors. Gone are the claims made about ‘myths’ and financial interests contaminating scientific objectivity. It now presents ‘the science’ within three categories of certainty: ‘aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement’; ‘aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion’; and ‘aspects that are not well understood’. This restatement will say little to anybody with an existing knowledge of the issues it relates to, and so the document looks now more like a rearguard action designed to define permissible areas of debate and discussion.

In a similar move, the BBC published its new guidelines, which promise that its coverage of climate issues will be more ‘inclusive’, and ‘ensure the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected’. The hitherto unchallengeable IPCC – the body that produces the ‘scientific consensus’ – has announced in the wake of criticism that the teams constructing its next report will take ‘guidance’ on the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed literature, the way it handles uncertainty, and its error-checking.

Although rank alarmism has been deprived of some of the certainty it once seemed to enjoy, there is not much to celebrate. These changes are not the consequence of a successful challenge to climate science in an open, technical debate, but to errors in procedure exposed by the media’s appetite for scandal. Most importantly, these changes have not come about as the consequence of a public debate about the values and ideas that underpin environmentalism. So while sceptics have attempted to challenge climate politics by questioning climate science and the over-statement of its consequences, this approach leaves the political character of environmentalism unchallenged.

For instance, the introduction to the Society’s latest report reveals: ‘Changes in climate have significant implications for present lives, for future generations and for ecosystems on which humanity depends.’ This claim exists prior to anything which emerges from climate science. It stresses society’s dependence on natural processes at the expense of an understanding of our capacity creatively to respond to our circumstances. And it is from this that many of the subsequent claims made in the climate debate draw their moral authority. For instance, it makes a political priority out of finding some relationship of ‘balance’ between nature and the human world, rather than addressing the problems caused by inequality within it. And it is this scepticism in relation to our capacity to deal with present and future problems which is also the basis of neo-Malthusian ideas about overpopulation and resource-depletion.

It is no coincidence that, as it was preparing to moderate its statements on climate change, the Society has been seeking to intervene in the debate about population. In July this year, it announced that it would be ‘undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures’ (see A prejudice in search of a scientific disguise, by Brendan O’Neill).

Climate change has served as the encompassing environmental narrative. It was used to connect the human and natural worlds, and to provide a basis for many political institutions that, without a climate crisis, would simply lack legitimacy. The forcefulness with which claims about climate change were presented and their abstract nature made climate-centric politics ever less plausible. However, if players in the climate debate are beginning to sense the exhaustion of the climate issue, they are able simply to slide into the population debate.

The perspectives of environmentalism do not begin with science, but with the anti-human and unscientific premise of our dependence on the natural world. This outlook goes unchallenged because of a perception that environmentalism is a pragmatic solution to purely scientifically-defined problems, and a belief that it can be answered in purely scientific terms. This encourages a sense of passivity, a sense of ‘leave it to the experts’.

But experts are rarely interested in allowing debate. Rather than passing a sceptical eye over the wildly exaggerated claims about climate change that led to the events of the last year – or even answering its critics – the scientific academy was busy fulfilling a new political function. It provided the basis for new and powerful political institutions in the place of a public contest about the values and ideas that inform them. This gap was hidden behind ‘science’.

It will likely be the same with the debate about population. Instead of finding solutions, today’s scientists seem to thrive and find new purpose in the atmosphere of doom and catastrophe created by the environmentalists’ narrative, and seem keen to emphasise the impossibility of progress beyond natural limits.