Political prejudices dressed up as science

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/8508/

Despite the apparent central position of science in debates and policymaking around climate change, more often than not policy responses are tempered by politics first, and science second.

Consider, for instance, two recent reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Humanitarian Foundation (GHF), which declared, respectively, that 150,000 and 300,000 deaths a year can be attributed to climate change. All of these cases were in the world’s poorer regions. In reality, these deaths were caused by poverty – and you can only really come to GHF’s and WHO’s conclusions if you presume that poverty is a ‘natural’ effect, and that is a political viewpoint not a scientific one.

At the same time, as much fun as debunking hockey sticks and exposing Climategate emails is, sceptics should be aware, too, that the debate around climate change does not rest on science. Looking for smoking guns to ‘debunk’ global warming fears merely reproduces the mistake that alarmists make: expecting science to resolve the political debate.

Myself and Stuart Blackman have made this argument several times on our blog, Climate Resistance, and we have found that, to our counterparts, it appears as though we are saying that somehow politics is prior even to material reality, which would seem to deny material reality by making it somehow dependent on social reality in some kind of postmodern sleight of hand. This isn’t what we’re arguing. Instead, we are suggesting that the politics is prior to formal reality in greens’ argument, but not in formal reality. It is a conceit of the ‘warmists’ that they imagine their own argument to be perfect models of the world, so that taking issue with it is to deny the causal universe itself.

In the real world, it is possible to presuppose certain things, and to model and project scenarios from these presuppositions. There is nothing wrong, or unscientific, about this. But afterwards the assumed premises are easily forgotten, and from the projections, it seems, come arguments that are in fact tempered by the political and social presumptions underlying the initial investigation. This then gets passed off as ‘science’.

The GHF and the WHO, for instance, had to presuppose that poverty is an immutable fact in order to make the projections that 150,000 or 300,000 deaths a year are caused by climate change. This then becomes an argument for policies which aim to mitigate climate change for the putative benefit of ‘the poor’, but in reality they miss entirely the factor which makes people vulnerable to climate – a lack of wealth and development.

These cases do not prove that ‘all climate politics is wrong’, of course. However, the kind of thinking that underlie them is evident in virtually every argument that posits the human consequences of climate change as a basis for political action. This is a mistake that was also made when it was assumed that the lives of millions of people would be at risk from the exaggerated Himalayan glacial recession. And it seems that it is a mistake that is almost built into the operations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

After these kind of conclusions have been drawn, discussions then commonly move on to the trump card: end-of-the world stories that do not depend on modelling projections from presupposed scenarios. Such stories include warnings of a risk that greenhouse gases will cause runaway climate change; the possibility that sea level rise will be so rapid and so high that it will inundate society’s adaptive capacity; that a small rise in temperature might unleash vast clouds of methane from under frozen land; that just a few degrees of warming could cause mass extinction, destroying the world’s biodiversity and capacity to support life. And so on.

It is then claimed that only scientists can really understand these risks. So anyone can construct a superficially plausible disaster story and then demand that only a scientist with the exact pertinent qualifications can stand in the way of its moral authority. In truth, such arguments are scientific only in the sense that they are expressed in technical terms, and some technical knowledge is required to unpack them. They are not claims of the same order as those that attempt to match theory with empirical evidence.

It makes no difference what the actual numerical values of these risk calculations are. That the scenario they depict is remotely plausible makes ignoring them – rhetorically speaking – as good as inviting them. The mere possibility that your existence is threatened is held in the debate as a gun to the head. It is not simply a question of worst-case scenarios, but of the worst-possible-imaginable scenarios ever – in the climate change debate these carry more weight than any rational reasoning. Still it is passed off as ‘science’ and to challenge it is to ‘deny’ science.

If people want to take issue with our contention, on Climate Resistance, that climate politics are prior to climate science, they are most welcome. They could, for example, try to convince us that we are overstating our case, but we are unaware of any extant sociological accounts of science that deny any confounding effect of politics in the scientific endeavour. A fair argument might also be made about science’s quality control measures – peer review, replication and the like – being more effective than we claim they are. Some would also argue that political and scientific institutions are better than we give them credit for at appraising their own biases, fears and desires when commissioning, conducting and interpreting policy-relevant scientific research.

But, as a general rule, that is not the kind of critique we get. Rather, we are accused of denying material reality, of attacking or disrespecting science, of postmodernism gone mad. This is as funny as it is infuriating. Because to deny that climate politics is – to a greater or lesser degree – prior to climate science is as at odds with reality (and even the academic consensus) as is the notion that the causal universe is merely a product of our collective imaginations.

If we are wrong, it is only by degree. It’s an argument we would enjoy having. But it’s not going to happen when just to broach the subject is seen as a sign that we are anti-science. It is those writing us off as such who are wrong in absolute terms.

Let’s pick apart this politics of doom

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/8057

A sixth of the world’s population – the billion or so people who live downstream of Himalayan glaciers and depend on them for water – must surely be relieved. Just a few months ago, ‘consensus science’ held that these vast tracts of ice would be gone in just a few decades. The implications were stark. Water wars and climate refugees would spread out from the region, consuming society in Gaia’s revenge. If the direct effects of climate change didn’t kill you, the social chaos they unleashed would.

Now that the death of the Himalayan glaciers has been deferred by some three centuries, we can take a sober look at the situation facing people living in the region. The truth is that they have more years ahead of them to find alternatives to relying on Himalayan meltwater than have passed since the Industrial Revolution began to transform our own landscape. That should be plenty of time.

For the furore around ‘Glaciergate’, we didn’t actually need to know that Himalayan glacial retreat was exaggerated to know that the disaster story it seemingly produced was pseudo-scientific bunk. The plots of such disaster stories are written well before any evidence of looming doom emerges from ‘science’. What really underpins the climate change panic is the way in which politicians have justified their own impotence by appealing to catastophe.

This helps to explain the reaction of the political establishment to the various scandals that have beset the IPCC and leading climate scientists in recent weeks. In response to the allegations levelled at individuals and institutions in the climate establishment, the UK climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, has declared war on climate sceptics on both Channel 4 News and in the Observer. But the ironic consequence of Miliband’s intervention has been to acknowledge that disagreement exists. Miliband now recognises an enemy that only a few months ago consisted of a tiny number of ‘flat-earthers’, according to his boss, Gordon Brown. Given that sceptics are not usually engaged, just ignored, a declaration of war is a sure sign that he is on the defensive.

Miliband says, ‘I think the science and the precautionary principle, which says that there’s at the very least a huge risk if we don’t act, mean that we should be acting’. This use of the precautionary principle puts the position of climate alarmists back by a decade. The argument for action on climate change once depended on just the possibility that changes in climate could cause devastating problems for humans. Scientists had not yet produced a consensus. The political stalemate seemingly ended after the infamous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph was published in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report (TAR) in 2001. It was held to be, at last, the conclusive evidence that man indeed had altered the climate. Here was the fingerprint on the ‘smoking gun’ that pointed towards our imminent demise.

By retreating to the precautionary principle rather than simply defending the notion of scientific consensus, Miliband concedes a lot. The scientific consensus around climate change has stood as a powerful source of political authority in lieu of democratic legitimacy. In the light of events and arguments which undermine this authority, Miliband is fighting for his government’s credibility, not to save the planet.

He protests that, in spite of the new climate scandals, the ‘overwhelming majority’ of scientists nonetheless still hold with the idea that mankind has altered the climate. The recent revelations are just dents, caused by procedural oversight, in an otherwise robust case, he seems to say. But actually, this does not really get to the heart of the discussion about climate. A scientific consensus about the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions is not equivalent to a scientific consensus about human society’s sensitivity to climate. There is a huge difference between these two ideas, yet Miliband’s argument rests on the idea that they are equivalent. And it is on this point that sceptics have not yet made much progress. While banging away at the science of climate change, they have failed to tackle the wider argument about our capacity to deal with the unexpected. What sceptics need to explain is how climate and society have become so confused.

This confusion has other ramifications, for example in the familiar claim that Miliband makes, that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. This in turn depends on the reinvention of ‘social justice’ as ‘environmental justice’, as if inequality is a natural phenomenon as inevitable as wind or rain.

But poverty is not a natural phenomenon. It is a tragic conceit to believe that by not driving our cars we will somehow make life better for those who cannot even dream of owning a car – much less having a road to drive it on. The problem is that people are poor, not that their climate is slightly different. We can see this fact demonstrated in the horrific scale of devastation in Haiti. An event of similar magnitude in a more economically developed country would not have claimed so many lives. It is not enough to say that carbon emissions cost lives, or anything like it, because the principal factors that determine the outcome of natural phenomena relate to an area’s level of development.

However, as Miliband’s words reveal, world leaders have given up on the idea of development as the means through which people can enjoy better protected and more rewarding lives. This can only have the consequence of producing and sustaining poverty, making greater numbers of people vulnerable to nature’s indifferent whims. The way in which the political class has surrendered to climate panic is a comprehensive admission of our leaders’ own impotence. Only if we take their inability to produce domestic or international development for granted can we conceive of changes in weather patterns as inevitably catastrophic.

For example, over the next three centuries, the people living beneath Himalayan glaciers might construct dams to collect the rain or snow that falls there, but which does not remain as ice. It is not inconceivable that Asians might also provide a greater proportion of their water needs through desalination plants. The world has been reorganised around the tenets of environmentalism precisely because the notion of using development to provide protection from natural disaster is now deemed to be impossible.

World leaders have projected their catastrophic sense of impotence on to the world. Just to make sure that politics cannot intervene, they have brought forward the date of the ecopalypse, to render any alternative and any debate impossible. It can’t happen soon enough for them. A failure of imagination has been passed off as the conclusion of ‘climate science’ and as the opinion of ‘the overwhelming majority of scientists’, but as we can see, the premise of impotence and catastrophe is a presupposition that is political in its character and not a conclusion produced by science.

In turn, if the notion of catastrophic climate change is reduced to a mere article of (bad) faith, the institutions of climate politics – all of which have been constructed on the premise of catastrophe/impotence – cease to have a legitimate basis. The IPCC, the Stern Review, the Kyoto treaty, Copenhagen, the Climate Change Committee and the legislation and reorganisation of public life that have followed in their wake have not been created to save the planet from climate catastrophe, but to save politicians from the collapse of their own authority. That is what Miliband’s war is about.

The scandal is not really in the fraud, exaggeration, or deceit – if that is what they were – committed by particular researchers, or the failure of the IPCC process to identify that certain claims were false. The scandal is that politicians seek moral authority in crisis. It was not ‘science’ that produced stories of imminent catastrophe; it was the bleak doom-laden politics of this era. Scientists merely extrapolated from this scenario, into the future, taking the logic of the political premises to their conclusion. The politics exists prior to the science. In reply, sceptics, with a more positive vision, ought to demonstrate the gap that exists between the science and the story, and how it might end differently if we start from more positive ground.

If Miliband wants a war, he can have one. But the battle lines should recognise that the politics of catastrophe is prior to the science of catastophe, and that another outlook that emphasises our ability to control events is possible. Environmental problems will always occur, but it is how they are understood that counts. We cannot understand ‘what science says’ until we understand what it has been told, and what it has really been asked. Science has been put to use to turn the billion people living beneath Himalayan glaciers into political capital by the IPCC to prop up the likes of Ed Miliband. It is only now that he has been deprived of the authority that those billion lives – or deaths – gave him, that he wants a war.

Today’s politicians need catastrophes because they have no other way of creating authority for themselves. But the catastrophe is in politics, not in the atmosphere.

Why Copenhagen was bound to fail

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/debates/copenhagen_article/7912/

December’s Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to be the moment at which nations came together to save the planet. But the attempt to produce an international, legally binding agreement on climate change ended up more like a squabble between rivals than the invention of a new green era. Even the force of the ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ championed in the lead up to, and during, the conference was insufficient to unite the world’s decision-makers. Although the blame game has begun, it is the nature of the meeting itself that explains its failure far better than the behaviour of its players.

Visions and divisions

Copenhagen brought to the surface the many tensions that exist within the green camp. Before the meeting opened, climate activist-scientist James Hansen expressed his distaste for the carbon markets that would likely be created by a deal (1). This put him at odds with unlikely environmental champion, the former vice-president and chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern. Stern’s 2006 report became the backbone of UK climate policies and made environmentalism the official language of the establishment.

For a while Stern was also celebrated by seemingly radical environmentalists because he had demonstrated that ‘market failure’ – capitalism – had produced the looming climate catastrophe, and he seemingly answered concerns that emissions reductions would impede economic development.  Ultimately, however, Stern, the establishment’s own eco-prophet, had only limited appeal to those seeking to express deeper misgivings about the status quo. As former principal speaker of the Green Party, Derek Wall, put it, Stern’s market solutions only served to ‘commodify the atmosphere’ (2). In the eyes of radical greens, the carbon market proposed by Stern began to represent the political establishment’s intransigence rather than its serious commitment to the environmental agenda. Before long, it became the focus of direct action such as last April’s G20 meetings, when the Climate Camp protest attempted to besiege the European Climate Exchange (3).

Official climate strategies are the focus of criticism from within, as well as without the establishment. Following the G20 protests, the chief economist for the Carbon Trust and a member of the UK Committee on Climate Change, Professor Michael Grubb, criticised the level of commitment to the Emissions Trading Scheme following the collapse of the value of emissions allowances (4). Grubb has joined fellow economists, Climate Change Committee chair Adair Turner and Stern (now chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics) in applying pressure to the government on climate issues, only occasionally in the same direction as their scruffier counterparts in protest movements.

The roles of environmental economists and their institutions were created by political dysfunction. In one extraordinary case of parliamentary pantomime, the Labour government, and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties pledged emissions cuts of 60 per cent, 80 per cent and 100 per cent respectively (5). Each claimed to have ‘the science’ on their side, and that the others would send the world into climate chaos. This embarrassing case of politics-by-numbers and opportunism led to an amendment of the Climate Change bill, creating the Climate Change Committee, which would dictate the UK’s ‘carbon budget’ (6). In this act, the government and its opposition further removed the climate debate from the democratic sphere, placing it instead in the hands of economists and climate experts (7). Now, it seems, the government appoints its own critics.

Pastiche politics and democratic deficit

As Brendan O’Neill observes in Hands off the human footprint!, climate politics epitomises the gulf between politics and public.  In lieu of a popular movement, the answer to this democratic deficit has been to seek authority in the prospect of catastrophe, the objectivity of climate science and environmental economics, and the moral ground supplied by NGOs. But the recruitment of scientists into the policymaking process has not created any confidence in government, politics or science, and the public remains cynical. Acknowledging the problem, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband called for a ‘big historic movement’ like the Suffragettes so as to demonstrate the extent of the climate cause’s ‘popular mobilisation’ (8).

As if commissioned by Miliband himself, a small number of environment protesters – the unpopular movement – dressed up as ‘climate Suffragettes’. Not only do supposedly radical protesters do what government tells them to do, the environmental movement is so incapable of creating its own history that it is forced to borrow costumes from the past to give itself gravity. Similarly, politicians dress themselves up as today’s JFK, offering re-hashed ‘today’s moon-landing’ speeches (9) or brandishing a version of a ‘Green New Deal’ as if they were latter-day Roosevelts (10).

Allusions to grand historical moments are attempts invest both speakers and cause alike with authority. Yet, whether posing as a new Roosevelt, JFK or Churchill, these shallow performances are nothing more than pastiche politics. Their performers are not heroes, but indecisive and disoriented figures who lack cohesive ideas about the future and are terrified of taking responsibility for it. They look to the past to connect with the public, hoping that nostalgia might stand in for vision. Further turning politics upside-down, Miliband calls for a popular movement to demand already-designed policies, while the government defers its decisions to unaccountable and undemocratic panels of experts.

Protecting the climate or projecting the crisis?

The objective of the Copenhagen conference is easily misread as an attempt to respond to warnings issued by climate science, but this view omits the context of the climate debate. The sensitivity of climate systems to greenhouse gasses is routinely confused with human society’s sensitivity to climate, and it is this misunderstanding which produces dramatic claims about looming catastrophes. In a sense, this is right. After all, if we take political impotence and incoherence for granted, it is easy to see how changes in climate could trigger catastrophes, because the process of economic and industrial development – which affords us protection from the elements – is the substance of politics. A small increase or decrease in rainfall in the UK may well create huge problems, not because of any ‘natural’ danger that change creates, but because of the inability to organise or afford a response to a technical challenge.

Climate change sceptics have, for the most part, failed to recognise the political nature and social context of the debate, focusing instead on coming up with a definitive debunking of the science. Hence they have sought to explain the ideas they oppose as purposive, coherent, and organised, leading to speculation about political conspiracies and scientific fraud. But this credits the green movement with far too much. Just as their green counterparts dress up as historical figures, so sceptics pick fights with ghosts. Christopher Monckton, for instance, expresses concerns about Copenhagen being the work of socialists intent on establishing ‘an unelected global government’ (11). While Copenhagen was certainly undemocratic, it is much better explained as the consequence of No Order Whatsoever than the expression of a New World Order. Moreover, it is the most left-leaning countries – China, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba – that stand most accused of scuppering the talks at Copenhagen.

Environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause

Copenhagen’s failure is the culmination of long-standing political incoherence. The government, opposition parties, special climate committees, NGOs, and activists, far from being united by their desire to save the world, only managed to deepen their differences. The government and its opposition use environmental crisis to rescue themselves from their own crisis of legitimacy. The institutions they create only serve to increase the distance between them, the public and the protesters. Sparse protest movements attract attention through absurd stunts, rather than by demonstrating their weight of numbers, further isolating themselves. One-time development NGOs abandon the notion of progress, to concentrate on mere ‘sustainability’, and through ill-conceived ideas such as ‘environmental justice’ and ‘climate poverty’, turn their campaigns against development itself (12).

The climate change camp cannot even agree on the reason for failure. Miliband and Brown accused China of derailing Copenhagen (13). Prescott chose to blame the USA (14), while complaining about climate activist Mark Lynas blaming China (15). As usual, Lynas’ comrade, George Monbiot, laid the blame squarely at the feet of Barack Obama, who was too busy representing ‘vested interests’ to save the planet (16). It was neither China nor the USA, said Martin Kohr, journalist and development economist; it was Denmark. The ‘Danish Text’ had proposed privileging industrialised countries over the developing world, causing the group representing them to walk out of the conference (17).

It seems that championing the climate cause precludes self-reflection. The climate crisis is but a proxy object for a much deeper crisis experienced by today’s politicians, who respond by seeking legitimacy through the environmental agenda. Defunct moral compasses point North towards melting ice caps and South towards ‘climate poverty’. But the crisis exists at home. Vacuity drives environmentalism’s ascendency, and the ever increasing incoherence of environmental politics has driven the search for authority beyond borders and above democratic politics and toward supranational institutions. The coming together of all those gripped by such crises in Copenhagen was a clumsy and blind attempt to turn disunity into something cohesive, and to turn aimlessness into direction. No wonder it failed; it was dead before it was even conceived.

Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog, and a philosophy and politics student at York University.

(1) Copenhagen: climate change talks ‘should fail’Telegraph, 3 December 2009

(2) Costing the EarthRed Pepper, 1 December 2006

(3) G20 in the city, Climate Camp website

(4) Time to act on carbon markets, BBC News, 15 April 2009

(5) Carbon neutral policy surfeit, Climate Resistance, 4 September 2007

(6) The New, Green AristocracyRegister, 28 October 2008

(7) activism.plc@gov.ac.uk, Climate Resistance, 27 January 2009

(8) activism.plc@gov.ac.uk, Climate Resistance, 27 January 2009

(9) Under the moon: Gore’s giant limp for mankind, Climate Resistance, 21 July 2008

(10) The ‘Green Energy Revolution’: spinning failure as success, Climate Resistance, 22 July 2009

(11) They are all criminals, Pajamas Media, 23 November 2009

(12) Environmental Justice – a Fiction, Climate Resistance, 7 November 2008

(13) Ed Miliband: China tried to hijack Copenhagen climate deal,Guardian, 20 December 2009

(14) LettersGuardian, 28 December 2009

(15) How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the roomGuardian, 22 December 2009

(16) If you want to know who’s to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US SenateGuardian 21 december 2009

(17) Blame Denmark, not China, for Copenhagen failure,Guardian, 28 December 2009

 

Greenpeace: putting trees before people

At the end of last month, the Guardian’s environment correspondent, David Adam, reported from Brazil on Greenpeace’s allegation that illegal deforestation in the Amazon Basin was linked to a number of giant UK food firms. But were Greenpeace’s claims all that they appeared?

The online version of Adam’s report features a video of his visit to Brazil. Pressing ‘play’ on the video, I expected to see Adam giving an account of the environmental Armageddon he was witnessing (and causing, given that the plane he travelled in would have emitted considerable quantities of greenhouse gases to get him there).

Instead I was greeted by one of the rotating adverts that appear ahead of the Guardian’s video features. ‘Kerrygold is owned by Irish dairy farmers, and this is our ad’, the farmers declare in broad brogue. It’s a curious advert to see ahead of a report about trees being illegally felled to make way for cattle. Over the course of centuries, Ireland been cleared of forest cover, and is now one of the least forested countries in Europe. It doesn’t seem to have done Irish farmers much harm.

Life isn’t as simple for people seeking an existence in Brazil as it is for the Kerrygold farmers, as Adam’s first article from the region illustrates. While the owners of one ranch have their estate and luxury accommodation protected by armed guards, squatters who live on the estate live much less rewarding lives. The possibility is raised that one of the squatters – the father of two young children – was recently shot in a dispute over land. We might expect Adam to continue describing the conditions and violence that the many people in Brazil have to endure. Instead, his article becomes confused and dominated by the issue of illegal deforestation – the subject of the Greenpeace report.

The story is that the Brazilian government has been unable and possibly unwilling to stop rainforest being illegally cleared to make way for cattle. Farms – some of which have illegally turned more than 20 per cent (the legal limit) of their land into pasture since 2006 – sell cattle to large companies that in turn supply UK retailers such as Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer with a range of goods such as meat, leather and gelatine products. ‘British supermarkets are driving rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest by using meat from farms responsible for illegal deforestation’, says Adam.

Sarah Shoraka, Greenpeace forests campaigner, is even blunter: ‘Shoes, handbags and ready meals aren’t normally associated with rainforest destruction and climate change, but we’ve found a smoking gun. UK companies are driving the destruction of the Amazon by buying beef and leather products from unscrupulous suppliers in Brazil. These products are ending up on our shelves.’

But is this ‘driving’ of rainforest destruction by UK firms quite as clear as Adam and Greenpeace are claiming? The suggestion is that these companies are complicit in illegal deforestation and therefore culpable. However, the ‘smoking gun’ which Greenpeace claims links companies to illegal deforestation amounts to no more than an allegation that trade that has been ‘contaminated’ with some beef from farms that had extended into rainforest. The evidence of this global conspiracy produced by Greenpeace are documents representing the sale of less than 9,000 head of cattle – hardly a huge amount given Brazil’s estimated stock of 200million.

To put that into perspective, there are 10million cattle in the UK, a country with a surface area less than three per cent of Brazil’s and with less than a quarter of Brazil’s human population. If Brazilian cattle were reared as intensively as their British counterparts, 9,000 cattle would occupy an area roughly one-tenth the size of the county of Oxfordshire.

Furthermore, it’s not true that the Brazilian government has ignored illegal clearing. In June last year, officials seized 3,100 cattle being illegally reared on an ecological reserve in the state of Para and a herd of 10,000 in Rondonia. The country’s environment minister estimates the size of the herd grazing illegally cleared land to be just 60,000. Are Greenpeace making mountains out of cow pats?

The story trades on the familiar line that, somehow, supermarkets and brand names are at the centre of all that is wrong in the world. But the government-funded National Health Service (NHS) was also named by Greenpeace’s report as a recipient of cattle products from illegal cleared rainforest, making it hard to sustain the idea that this is some kind of corporate conspiracy. Greenpeace’s aim with this exaggeration, aided and abetted by Adam’s reports, seems to be the establishment of international rules to regulate the trade in beef, pushed through on a wave of consumer guilt.

As Greenpeace’s report says: ‘The Copenhagen Climate Summit, to be held in Denmark in December 2009, is the key opportunity for governments to agree measures to drastically reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions. Any effective deal must include actions and funding to tackle deforestation.’

There may well be an argument that what happens to trees thousands of miles away is a problem. But the problems experienced by the poor in Brazil, and throughout the world, must surely be more pressing. Instead, it is squeamishness about what our shopping habits do to forests that drives the argument for international regulatory frameworks, and it is hard to see how focusing on land, trees and cows will raise the standard of living for people whose labour and lives are cheap. Such campaigns seem to express greater solidarity with wood than with people.

Greenpeace enjoys an increasingly cosy relationship with the establishment. As politicians find it harder to make arguments for themselves, they frequently turn to NGOs to give their policies credibility. For instance, the UK Conservative leader David Cameron recently launched his party’s energy policy at a press event held on the rooftop of Greenpeace’s London HQ (watch it here).

Journalists, too, look to such organisations for moral direction and sensational copy. This means that rather than holding them to account, the claims and broader agendas of NGOs often go without scrutiny or criticism. It is taken for granted that they are ‘ethical’, but no one ever voted for Greenpeace and there is no good reason to believe that the preoccupation with environmental issues is in the interests of people, either in the UK or in Brazil.

Top British boffin: Time to ditch the climate consensus

Just two years ago, Mike Hulme would have been about the last person you’d expect to hear criticising conventional climate change wisdom. Back then, he was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, an organisation so revered by environmentalists that it could be mistaken for the academic wing of the green movement. Since leaving Tyndall – and as we found out in a telephone interview – he has come out of the climate change closet as an outspoken critic of such sacred cows as the UN’s IPCC, the “consensus”, the over-emphasis on scientific evidence in political debates about climate change, and to defend the rights of so-called “deniers” to contribute to those debates.

As Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, Hulme remains one of the UK’s most distinguished and high-profile climate scientists. In his new book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, he explores how the issue of climate change has come to be such a dominant issue in modern politics. He treats climate change not as a problem that we need to solve – indeed, he believes that the complexity of the issue means that it cannot be solved, only lived with – and instead considers it as much of a cultural idea as a physical phenomenon.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing to hear from a climate scientist writing about climate change is that climate science has for too long had the monopoly in climate change debates. When we spoke to him on the phone, Hulme cited as evidence the 2007 protests against Heathrow’s third runway, where marchers made their case by waving a research paper at the TV cameras under a banner bearing the slogan “We are armed only with peer reviewed science”. [The paper wasn’t actually peer-reviewed science – see Bootnote]

“To me, that’s the most dispiriting position,” says Hulme. “For these people who feel so passionately about this, their ultimate authority is a report from a group of scientists, and they’re saying ‘this is where we stand, forget about our moral concerns, forget about our ethical positions, forget about whether we are Right, Left or centre, forget about whether we are Christians or Buddists, no, none of that matters.’ The only thing that matters is that they’re holding a report from peer-reviewed science that in itself justifies their position.”

And it’s not just protesters who are hiding behind the authority of science. World leaders are doing it, too.

“Uncertainty, and things like that”

Hulme despairs over the comments made to the Copenhagen climate conference in March by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then the Danish Prime Minister. Rasmussen told delegates that “science should be the basis for decision-making in this field”, and asked scientists to keep it simple, “not to provide us with too many moving targets…and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.”

“That’s just classic,” says Hulme. “Here’s this politician telling the scientists ‘we can’t do this without you. Give us the numbers. But by the way, make them simple, and make them precise.’”

Hulme believes that this dependence of politics on science expects too much of science’s ability to explain and to predict, and that this is a burden that science cannot carry. Science is exposing its vulnerabilities, he says. And in overselling itself, the risks are very substantial. “It’s like the classic case of the dodgy dossier”.

Making politics disappear

He stresses that he has little problem with the basic scientific understanding of climate change. It’s just that, if progress is to be made in debates on how to respond to that knowledge, they need to be opened up to other disciplines, from the arts and humanities, for example – and to good old-fashioned politics and ideologies.

“However much we agree on the fundamentals of the physics of climate change, there are huge ethical, political and ideological differences that remain about what climate change signifies for society”, says Hulme. “And if one pretends that we can gloss over those, converging on a single political position, where there is no party political debate and differentiation, then we’re losing some of the essential dimensions of climate change that we have to engage with. It narrows down debate rather than opening it up.”

Which is why Hulme has opposed the idea of UK cross-party consensus. “Climate change can only be understood from a position of dis-census, rather than artificially solved by creating consensus,” he says.

Similarly, while he is sympathetic to the ambitions of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he is critical of the way it is widely cited as the last word on climate issues.

“It’s won theNobel Peace Prize for goodness’ sake – it can’t be challenged!”

mike_hulme.jpg

Mike Hulme

He also regards the IPCC as too selective in terms of both the geographical regions from which it draws its knowledge and in its academic scope.

“It is hugely dominated by the natural sciences, economics and engineering. The social sciences hardly get a look in, and the humanities none at all. For example, it does not include anthropological understandings of weather and climate or any historical perspectives on how societies and climates have interacted historically.”

“If climate change is the biggest issue facing the future of human civilisation, to use the rhetoric, then surely a body charged to assess what humans know about climate change should actually be assessing all forms of knowledge.”

Moreover, says Hulme, no one is even quite sure what sort of knowledge it is that the IPCC, as a “boundary organisation” – part science, part politics – actually produces. Nor how the world at large interprets that hybrid knowledge. Even more fundamentally, he says, it is far from clear that the IPCC has actually allowed us to do “better science”:

“Or has it actually narrowed the way we frame and ask questions in climate change research?” Hulme wonders.

No denier

And yet even though the IPCC is an institutional experiment as much as a scientific one – and despite its occupying a position of huge influence in the world – few sociologists seem to be scrutinising its workings. This may in part be due to the fact that action on climate change is widely seen as a progressive goal, says Hulme, and being a generally progressive sort of bunch, social scientists might be reticent to impede proceedings, or to be seen to give succour to right-wing “denialists”.

“That’s an accusation that has been charged at me, that I’m simply lending ammunition to people who generally are politically conservative, and who want to discredit the basic physics behind climate change.”

In pushing to open up climate change debates to non-scientific disciplines, Hulme runs the risk perhaps of attracting accusations of not only “denier”, but also of “relativist”, which is almost as dirty a word in scientific circles. Hulme’s Christian beliefs might be a further invitation to ad hominem responses.

But any attacks that were aimed at him on these grounds would demonstrate his point nicely.

After all, much of the abuse that is hurled across the climate divide comes from those who like to believe that it is they who are dealing in a currency of proper science – bias and ideology is what the opposition does. Hence the vitriol aimed at Bjørn Lomborg over the years.

“It was interesting as to why he received such hate-mail from very well respected academics rather than simply engaging in the arguments,” says Hulme. “It became very very heavily and easily personalised, when actually Lomborg’s position is an entirely defendable position. I mean, you can disagree with it, and you can find flaws in his argument, but let’s find those flaws and let’s have a disagreement, rather than suddenly becoming reactionaries overnight. And I think there’s too much of that. And it’s an interesting question as to why it is that people feel that climate change is somehow is the issue beyond all other issues today that one has to stand on shoulder to shoulder and not allow any chink in because it would allow the powers of darkness to somehow gain the upper hand.”

For Hulme, for open debate to be possible, there must be a recognition on all sides that we all bring a host of values, beliefs and influences to the table along with our knowledge, expertise and training.

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“If, say, Jim Hansen or Fred Singer and I sat down and looked at the same scientific evidence, we would come up with a very different set of proscriptions. Now, why is that? Is it because our scientific training is deficient, and he’s seeing more than I’m seeing, or I’m seeing more than he’s seeing? I don’t think it is. I think actually there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on here. And that’s actually what we have to get down to – to root out, and expose, accept, and work within these broader, deeper sources of disagreement.”

“To hide behind the dubious precision of scientific numbers, and not actually expose one’s own ideologies or beliefs or values and judgements is undermining both politics and science”, says Hulme.

A bigger debate

That his thesis has the potential to draw in and engage disparate climate change factions is suggested by the cover-blurb testimonies from an oil company advisor, a deep ecologist, a sociologist, and an environmental scientist. But Hulme has his work cut out. Even as he spoke to us, President Obama was declaring in his address to the US National Academy Of Sciences: “Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over”.

It’s not hard to get labelled a climate change “denier”. You don’t even have to deny that climate change is real, man-made and a problem. As Bjørn Lomborg, climatologist Patrick Michaels and political scientist Professor Roger Pielke Jr have discovered, you merely have to challenge the orthodox political policy responses.Or, like Climate Audit’s Steve McIntyre, dare to scrutinise the statistical workings behind influential climate research papers. If you stray from agreeing with the political prescription, you’re an immoral person.

So, how long, we wonder, before Mike Hulme attracts the same accusation?

*Bootnote

Oops: the “peer reviewed science” waved at the cameras by the Heathrow protesters wasn’t even peer reviewed science. It was a report from the Tyndall Centre commissioned by the Friends of the Earth and The Co-operative Bank. See my earlier report here – and the Tyndall report here [PDF].

What would you pay for 400,000 new green jobs?

Good news emerged from the recent Low Carbon Summit hosted by bailed-out £10bn loss-making bank, RBS. Peter Mandelson got covered in custard, and the government announced a new industrial strategy.

Apparently 400,000 new “environmental sector” jobs will be created by 2017, according to Gordon Brown, who reckoned 1.3 million people would by then be working in “green” jobs. According to Mandelson, “The huge industrial revolution that is unfolding in converting our economy to low carbon is going to present huge business and employment opportunities.”

But what are these jobs – and how did they get that number?

In order to make the argument for the ‘Green New Deal’, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) commissioned Innovas, a market analysis consultancy, to research the size of the green economy.

Innovas identified three fundamental areas of economic activity in the ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’ (LCEGS) sector – ‘Environmental’, ‘Renewable’, and ‘Emerging Low Carbon’. These break down into 4 further levels, only one of which is detailed in the documents published by BERR.

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Each sector was surveyed to establish how many it employed, and its value and growth over 2007-2008. This growth was applied to the employment baseline to project the number of jobs in the LCEGS sector by 2015. So far, so rosy. But what lies beneath these figures, and what assumptions are behind these growth projections?

Garbage in, garbage out

Take the LCEGS ‘Waste Management’ and ‘Recovery and Recycling’ sectors, which together promise nearly 25,000 new jobs. In 1996, the Landfill Tax was introduced, creating substantial revenues for the Government, and ‘incentives’ for alternative disposal, including recycling. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the Landfill Tax earned £900m in 2007-8.

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In 2007, the tax on a tonne of rubbish was £24, but the existing £3 escalator was raised to £8 so that the tax on a tonne of rubbish will be £48 in 2010. Under the EU Landfill Directive, local authorities are subject to fines of £150/tonne for exceeding their allowances. This increasing expense has forced widespread and unpopular changes to refuse collection services. Regulation has been one half the story of this sector’s growth. BERR speculated last year that “up to £30bn will need to be invested across the [waste management] sector by 2020” including £5-6bn by 2013 to achieve environmental targets for the disposal of municipal solid waste, “and a further £4-5bn to reach the 2020 target.” With a current market value of £11bn, it would be a surprise if £30bn investment, expensive targets and punitive measures over the next 11 years didn’t yield a (roughly) 25% increase in the size of the market. So if 25,000 extra jobs in these sectors are created, it will be at the cost of £1.2m per job. Not bad for the bin men, but terrible for us lumbered with the interest on PFI loans, inadequate refuse collection, and rising council taxes, for no tangible benefit.

Green growth or just mould?

Citing Innovas’s report, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband said that the global green sector is already a three-trillion-dollar industry set to grow by fifty per cent. Agriculture accounts for 4 per cent of the World’s GDP of around $70tn. Is it plausible that the world’s ‘green’ economy is larger than the agricultural economy? These big numbers raise questions about the meaning of ‘green’?

“We try to create as wide a definition as possible”, says John Sharp, MD of Innovas Solutions, “because that way we can capture the supply chain. We don’t count things like toilet roll and stationery.”

But it includes the manufacture, installation, supply, and distribution of battery testing equipment, and nearly the entire chain from development to decommissioning and decontamination of nuclear power stations.

Innovas’s analysis is useful under any definition of green, insists Sharp. Some environmentalists might want to reject the alternative fuel vehicles sector, or the entire ’emerging low carbon’ sector on the basis that these activities aren’t green enough. But Miliband and Brown need the LCEGS sector to appear as broad and as potent as they can, in order to be able appeal to investors who want to see a return, and to the voter, who, in the month that unemployment level exceeded 2 million, wants to see jobs.

Miliband wants to give the impression that the global low-carbon sector’s growth is a spontaneous phenomenon emerging under its own steam. It’s inevitable, he believes. But this is a market created by legislation and international climate agreements that wouldn’t be necessary if this sector’s growth really was ‘inevitable’.

Carrot and stick power

Innovas estimates that the renewable energy sector is worth £31bn. Here’s another sector that has expanded due to intervention. The Renewables Obligation Order 2002 (RO), forces suppliers to provide an increasing percentage of electricity from renewable sources. If a supplier fails to meet the target, it is fined proportionately. The fines are redistributed to suppliers according to their performance. According to BERR, this props up the renewable energy industry by £1bn a year, which is passed on to the consumer.

This fact was acknowledged by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in a consultation document on the UK’s renewable energy strategy last June.

Our current climate change policies […] make up around 14% of average domestic electricity bills and 3% of average domestic gas bills. […] Our existing climate change policies are projected to add around 18% to annual domestic electricity bills and around 55% to industrial electricity bills by 2020.

The subsidy is intended to drive progress in the development of renewable technologies, but some argue that it may be doing the opposite.

“The [RO scheme] accounts for about 60 to 70 per cent of the income of renewable generators”, says John Constable, Director of Research at the Renewable Energy Foundation. “It’s an artificial market.”

The capture of gas from landfill sites to produce energy has never needed subsidies, so the RO allowed generators “to cover themselves in money”. But the next best thing – offshore wind is “only market-ready if you exclude true costs and don’t make them pay their way”, Constable points out. In order to make wind attractive to investors, regulation forces a market for its energy. So what incentive is there to make wind actually work?

Horse, push cart

But is this, as Mandelson claims, an industrial revolution? A genuine industrial revolution should make it possible to produce things more efficiently, creating greater dynamism within the economy. But this green “industrial revolution” yields no net benefit. What are called opportunities are generated at a net cost, absorbing money and labour that might be better spent on producing real industrial development, or public services such as schools and hospitals. Stagnation is spun as progress. For example, it is China’s industrial dynamism, not the UK’s, which has created markets for reclaimable materials. It is only by intervention and legislation that the UK is even able to collect plastic bottles, never mind reprocess them.

“Are these new jobs in these new industries going to be wealth-creating ones, or are they simply going to be reliant on funding which has to come from somewhere else? You can’t just create new jobs in a sector which is politically appealing without there being knock-on effects further on in the economy,” says Tom Clougherty Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute.

You don’t need to be a free-market advocate or climate sceptic to see the point. The green sector can’t yet stand on its own two feet. If we want to create more jobs, it might be more sensible to invest in sectors that are capable of producing wealth, rather than merely absorbing it.

Bootnote

Innovas told us that we’d need to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) to see a more detailed analysis than the highlights BERR published. It was signed, but they didn’t send the analysis anyway. So you are unable to compare the growth in the green sector with what it receives in the form of benefits, or to establish the truth of the Government’s claims and the wisdom of its policies for yourself.

‘We have an extremely selfish population’

In November 2008, the UK’s Climate Change Act was passed, committing the country to an 80 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. Politicians, NGOs, journalists and activists welcomed the target, but to meet it many far-reaching changes in our working- and day-to-day lives will be necessary, the extent of which is rarely discussed.

To put it bluntly: is the carbon goal achievable? Earlier this month, the science policy researcher Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, gave a talk at Aston University in Birmingham, outlining his view that the goal is unreachable, and in fact has already failed.

In early 2007, the government’s Draft Climate Change Bill had proposed a 60 per cent emissions reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 (1), with ‘carbon budgets’ presented every five years by an independent panel. This proposal had its critics. The Conservative Party announced that, according to its research, the target ought to be an 80 per cent cut (2). Following on, the Liberal Democrats argued that by 2050 the UK should be zero-carbon and should have banned nuclear energy (3). The three main parties each claimed to have ‘the science’ on their side, yet produced substantially different targets.

In October 2007, the problem of this game of politics-by-numbers was resolved. An independent panel would decide what the UK’s commitment to emissions reduction should be (4). This panel – the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – was set up the following February. The CCC chair Lord Adair Turner was joined by two more economists, Professor Michael Grubb and Dr Samuel Fankhauser; the former president of the Royal Society, Lord Bob May; mathematical physicist, Professor Jim Skea; and the committee’s only climate scientist, Sir Brian Hoskins.

The CCC was asked to prepare advice for parliament by October 2008, ahead of the Climate Change Bill’s reading in the House of Commons. It took the unelected committee just seven months to decide the terms and targets of the next 42 years of UK energy policy. The committee’s report advising parliament to set targets of 80 per cent cuts by 2050, and between 34 per cent and 42 per cent by 2020, was published on 1 December, five days after the Climate Change Act was passed. MPs voting for the act could have had no idea what it was they were voting for.

The rate of decarbonisation required to meet these targets would, according to Roger Pielke, be ‘more aggressive than has ever been documented in any developed country at any time ever’. But isn’t this the ‘drastic action’ that environmentalists have been demanding, and politicians have been promising, for many years now? The problem is the difference between goals and action. ‘One of the implications is that the UK would have to be as carbon-efficient as France within the next decade’, Pielke tells me. France’s energy policy gives us a good benchmark for understanding the scale of the numerical goals in more practical terms. To become that efficient in that time frame is equivalent to building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015. ‘There’s a fine line between aspirational goals and fictional goals’, says Pielke, ‘but from a political and societal perspective, it’s just not going to happen. We should be rethinking the process that’s been put in place to achieve these goals.’

Pielke’s criticism is that the Climate Change Act has created targets without sufficient thought about how they will be realised. To demonstrate this, he returns to the numbers, and uses a mathematical formula known as the Kaya Identity to analyse the Climate Change Act’s targets. This model reveals the degrees of freedom at the government’s disposal with the expression:

CO2 Emissions = Population x Per Capita GDP x Energy Intensity x Carbon Intensity

Using this expression, we can examine each component to see what it tells us about possible policy options.

Population: Even among the greenest greens, there is recognition that the regulation of human fertility to control population growth is a non-starter. Members of the neo-Malthusian Optimum Population Trust, such as Crispin Tickell and Jonathon Porritt, stress instead the possibility of engineering social norms instead of laws. But that’s a difficult thing to incorporate into any emissions reduction strategy, and is unlikely to yield any result in terms of emissions over the next 100 years – it takes a while for the effect of people not having babies to get noticed.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): If population control is off the agenda, can emissions be controlled through economics? ‘I don’t see the restriction of economic activity as being on the cards’, says Pielke, ‘not in Britain. Not in the States. Not in China. Not anywhere.’

Is GDP the best way to measure economic progress? Greens have argued for some time that there are better ways to measure progress than GDP growth, for instance by redistributing wealth within an economy limited by environmental regulations and improving measures of ‘subjective wellbeing’, rather than expecting growth to deliver marginal material improvements at the bottom.

But while this kind of ‘happiness agenda’ advocated by Green MEP Caroline Lucas, and by the New Economics Foundation, achieves prominence within debates about climate change, such ideas have yet to have much of an impact in mainstream politics and the public’s imagination. Such radical proposals, in spite of the urgency of arguments in favour of action to prevent an ecological apocalypse, remain deeply unpopular. ‘There’s not going to be any success in long-term emissions reductions that have a basis in dramatically limiting economic growth’, says Pielke. ‘It doesn’t pass the reality test.’

Energy and carbon intensity: The two remaining factors – energy and carbon intensity – present similar obstacles to any emissions reduction goal. We could reduce energy intensity by limiting the opportunities available to people, equivalent to increasing dependence on manual labour. This has been proposed. Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Arts published details of its three-year feasibility study of ‘personal carbon budgets’ (5) – politically correct vernacular for ‘carbon rationing’.

But before the RSA’s study had concluded, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) headed off fears that the government was considering such a retrogressive and unpopular policy. Defra announced that because it was expensive, rather than because the policy was wrong, ‘we will not be pursuing this option further at this stage’ – even if the government reserves the right to revive the idea later on (6). ‘Policymakers recognise that technology alone isn’t going to do the job’, says Pielke. ‘They’re going to have to look at putting restrictions on economic activity.’

In setting targets, Pielke says, we have got things backwards, focusing on top-down policy, rather than bottom-up technology. There is no precedent for achieving the rate of decarbonisation to which the UK is now committed. And while the target of 80 per cent reduction on 1990 levels of emissions satisfies the need for a goal, questions about its legitimacy arise when we consider that population is variable. What’s right and proper for a population of 60million isn’t necessarily right or proper for a population of 70million. Like population, GDP is also variable. If emissions are related to GDP, then, necessarily, we might be forced to abandon potential growth for the sake of meeting targets if Britain, perhaps miraculously, were to experience a period of growing wealth. Conversely, why should policymakers take credit for reducing emissions during an economic recession?

Moreover, the Climate Change Act will, according to the CCC, ‘only’ cost between one per cent and two per cent of GDP. That is relatively unproblematic if the economy is growing at five or six per cent per year, but it could make the difference between growth and contraction, or between recession and full-blown depression.

Pielke says: ‘For us to best deal with challenges of policy, we’ve got to know what kind of problems we’re up against. We know how to start the process of decarbonising the economy. But we don’t know how fast we can go, and we don’t know what the end point is. The Climate Change Act is exactly the opposite way that we should think about decarbonisation. It starts with the targets and timetables, and then says “well, how do we do that?” Instead it should start with “what can we do and how fast can we go, and what does that imply for targets and timetables?”’

It is interesting to note that Pielke has already outlined a possibility for decarbonising the UK economy. We could, if the will existed, build the 30 nuclear power stations that he has pointed out would make us as carbon-efficient as France. But the will doesn’t exist, and neither does the political imagination. This throws into relief the disparity between the two approaches – bottom-up and top-down. A programme of building and extending the UK’s energy infrastructure doesn’t require a huge imaginative leap, whether it is argued for as a good thing in itself, or as a response to climate change. Instead, the climate change debate is dominated by negative slogans about needing to change our behaviour, and that we face a difficult, unpredictable and dangerous future.

Given this disparity, we might ask if the Climate Change Act speaks less about rising to the challenge of a changing climate, and more about the political establishment’s need to manage the public’s expectations in the face of its own lack of imagination. It is as if the only way a policy can be for something is if it is set against the backdrop of something more pressing and important than trivial matters of meeting human needs and ambitions. In this limited way of looking at things, these needs and ambitions become the problem that the political establishment is focused on addressing.

I ask Pielke if his analysis of the Climate Change Act might take for granted the imperatives that it is a response to, without considering these wider factors that might give rise to ill-considered policies: ‘My focus is to talk about [the Climate Change Act] from a fairly technical perspective; from a policy evaluation standpoint. Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects the goals, or the process which led to the generation of the goals, the question is “can the policy succeed as established in legislation?” That sets the basis for asking further order questions: Are they the right goals? Is the process that’s been used to set the goals or policy a legitimate process? But seeing that I find a first-order failure in the ability of the policy to succeed in legislation, it renders some of those questions fairly moot. If you accept the argument that it can’t succeed, then the question is “what happens next?”’

My concerns that Pielke’s analysis might miss the point are again raised after his talk at Aston University. Professor Julia King, who is both chancellor of the university and a member of the Climate Change Committee, raised an objection to Pielke’s analysis: ‘Before you make statements about timetables and targets which don’t ask “can this be done?”, I think you really do need to take due account of the fact that most people who are putting together targets and timetables are doing this on the basis of a lot of research into potential scenarios. It’s another issue turning that into policy, for governments, and it’s very easy for all of us who don’t have to be elected to say “this is how I would do it”, and I have a lot of sympathy for our politicians, because they are dealing with extremely selfish populations.’

King was further irked by Pielke’s answer that the target could be met by building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015, and that the CCC’s advice on how to realise the targets was no less aggressive in magnitude. The CCC’s ‘scenarios have been tested for do-ability’, she told Pielke, arguing that he simply doesn’t understand their advice. ‘The good news about the Climate Change Act’, replies Pielke, ‘is that we don’t have to wait very long for this debate to be resolved by events in the real world’.

‘I’m an engineer’, King tells me after the talk. ‘I’ve never seen an engineering or development programme work, unless you have timescales and targets.’ That may be so, but is the Climate Change Act really an engineering project? Where is the building, the development, the progress? ‘What gets measured gets done’, says King. ‘[Pielke’s] argument would suggest that we would engineer recession because it would give us the targets. But that assumes that it’s a pretty unintelligent group of people who are trying to develop the policy.’

So how does King, the not-unintelligent engineer and CCC member, imagine that the targets will get delivered? ‘The biggest challenge is actually behavioural change in my view. My particular area has been looking at how we can decarbonise road transport. It wouldn’t take much behaviour change to reduce by 30 or 40 per cent our CO2 emissions from cars.’

King appears to want to sustain her cake and eat it. On one hand, she argues that targets have been ‘tested for do-ability’, but on the other she emphasises that behaviour change is key to meeting them. These targets may well be ‘do-able’ in the sense that they are feasible – we could dispense with all electricity and transport problems simply by ‘changing behaviour’ such that nobody used transport or used electricity. But what kind of society would we have? ‘The social and political realities should be part of the “do-ability” test’, says Pielke. ‘Where is the test? No large economy has ever decarbonised at the rate that the UK is planning, so whether or not the targets are “doable” is simply a proposition at this point.’ Indeed, getting the ‘selfish population’ to change their behaviour is King’s and the government’s main problem.

Pielke’s analysis may not be able to explain what lies behind the political establishment’s desire to control behaviour, or the legitimacy of the process by which the Climate Change Bill became an Act. But his criticism stands out against the widespread failure of parliament, journalists and academics to subject this act to any scrutiny. Just six MPs voted against the Bill, and the few objections that were raised in parliament barely registered and were casually dismissed.

What Pielke’s approach ultimately reveals is not merely that targets – the preferred mode of the Major, Blair and Brown governments’ delivery and measure of progress – are fundamentally ill-conceived where there are no ideas about how to deliver them. It shows that the special politics demanded by environmental concerns are also unrealistic, because it fails to take into account the need for material progress. This need is waved away by the likes of King and environmentalists, as ‘selfishness’, but this assumes that we live in a country – never mind world – that doesn’t suffer from any kind of shortage.

‘There’s a good case to be made for a re-casting of the entire climate change problem in a way that leads to progress, not the impression of progress’, said Pielke, concluding his talk. He then displayed a slide showing satellite images of light emissions on the planet’s surface now, and what the same image would be, were everyone able to enjoy the same living standards as the USA.

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‘Whether you think this is a nightmare scenario, or a dream scenario’, he said, ‘this is where the world is heading, and all efforts to develop, to bring electricity to people who don’t have electricity, to bring wealth to people who don’t have wealth, are going to lead to a world like this. The world is moving in the direction; let’s consciously plan for it in our climate policies.’

Governments that put environment before people and progress will worsen the already existing mutually cynical relationship between citizens and state. There is good evidence that the UK government’s ambition to be a world leader on climate change policy is concomitant with contempt for the public. But as Pielke’s arguments suggest, environmental problems do not demand special politics, or even special policies to control the desire for better and more. The main obstacles to meeting the challenge of a changing climate are the policymakers’ lack of imagination and commitment to the very idea of progress. The Climate Change Act says far more about the government than it says about the ‘selfish’ public.

(1) ‘Binding’ carbon targets proposed, BBC News, 13 March 2007

(2) Tories raise climate stakes, Observer, 8 April 2007

(3) Liberal Democrats reveal plans for zero carbon Britain, LIberal Democrats (retrieved from WebArchive.org)

(4) Benn sets out strengthened Climate Change Bill, Defra

(5) Carbon Limited, RSA, 31 December 2008

(6) Personal carbon trading, Defra

How you pay for tomorrow's scares, today

In a remarkably gullible news item, the BBC reported that 2008 was a ‘huge year for natural disasters’. “The past year has been one of the most devastating ever in terms of natural disasters… climate change [is] boosting the destructive power of disasters like hurricanes and flooding,” it proclaimed.

This was drawn from a report that found that although there were fewer “loss-producing events” in 2008 than in the previous year, the impact of natural disasters was higher. It claimed that more than 220,000 people died in events like cyclones, earthquakes and flooding, the most since 2004, the year of the Asian tsunami. Global losses totalled about $200bn (£137bn), with uninsured losses totalling $45bn, about 50 per cent more than in 2007, the report claimed. All of which made 2008 the third most expensive year on record, after 1995, when the Kobe earthquake struck Japan, and 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina in the US.

And why would that be? The BBC article quoted expert Torsten Jeworrek, who claimed: “Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes.”

Thing is, Torsten Jeworrek is an expert in insurance, not climate. He is on the board of insurance giants Munich Re. And Munich Re are the authors of the new report.

It goes without saying that insurance companies need to keep abreast of developments in risk if they are to provide a service for their clients. But it also goes without saying that generating alarm about those same risks is also to their advantage. Indeed, Munich Re says as much on its website:

Risk is our business: Among other things, we reinsure the risks connected with oil rigs, satellites and natural catastrophes, and those arising from the use of genetic engineering and information technology or from the management of companies.

Climate change is not the only issue Munich Re is whipping up alarm about. It also desires that we flap over other scares du jour, such as piracy…

Piracy reaches new dimensions: The frequency and severity of piracy attacks have reached alarming levels

…terrorism…

Megacities extremely vulnerable to natural perils, technological risks, terrorism and environmental hazards

More risk awareness and greater transparency urgently needed with regard to hazard exposure

Munich Re presents its views at the UN’s World Conference on Disaster Reduction

…and obesity:

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are spreading at an alarming rate around the world

But, mostly, it’s climate change…

10 April 2008 India: Increase in losses due to climate change / Board member Torsten Jeworrek: “In coming decades, the effects of climate change will make themselves felt particularly in emerging countries like India.”

… and climate change …

29 September 2008 Munich Re exhibition in Tokyo highlights risks and opportunities of global warming

… and climate change …

27 December 2007 Natural catastrophe figures for 2007: Higher losses despite absence of megacatastrophes, very many loss events / Overall economic losses of US$ 75bn / Board member Dr. Torsten Jeworrek: Loss figures in line with the rising trend in natural catastrophes, Munich Re is prepared

… and climate change …

July 2008 High death toll marks the 2008 half-year natural catastrophes figures

… and climate change …

5 June 2007 Munich Re signs the “Declaration on Climate Change” of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative.

Munich Re Board member Torsten Jeworrek: “Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. What we do today is crucial for future generations.

Therefore, swift international action is urgently needed.”

… and climate change …

Munich Re forecasts long-term increase in demand for risk protection as a result of climate change and growing concentrations of values.

And there’s plenty more climate change where those came from.

Munich Re is certainly not the first insurance company to try to cash in on climate alarm by generating more of it. Back in April 2007 Ben Pile and I reported on the efforts of risk assessment giants Risk Management Solutions (RMS) to do the same. Bob Ward, RMS’s Director of Global Science Networks, was continuing a crusade against the dirty denialist industry – namely, Exxon and Martin Durkin – that he started while in his previous employment as Senior Manager for Policy Communication for Exxon-slayers the Royal Society.

What is surprising is that the BBC have deemed the witterings of an insurance company worthy of a news story, and moreover, that they have chosen to take those witterings entirely at face value. At the very least they could have wondered why earthquakes were lumped into the analysis or how much the figures were skewed by one devastating cyclone in Myanmar.

Or they could have drawn on the academic literature. An article published in 2007 in the journal Science concluded that:

global weather-related economic losses (inflation adjusted, 2006 dollars) have increased from an annual average of U.S.$8.9 billion from 1977–1986 to U.S.$45.1 billion from 1997–2006. However, because of issues related to data quality, the low frequency of extreme event impacts, limited length of the time series, and various societal factors present in the disaster loss record, it is still not possible to determine the portion of the increase in damages that might be attributed to climate change brought about by greenhouse gas emissions (S1). This conclusion is likely to remain unchanged in the near future.

Torsten Jeworrek’s quotes – like the whole BBC story, in fact – are lifted directly from Munich Re’s press release. But then, perhaps the BBC didn’t have much choice (other than to ignore the story completely) because Munich Re haven’t actually made their report available. When we emailed them for a copy, media relations officer Alexander Mohanty replied that “there is no additional report or publication. Munich re’s annual report on natural catastrophes is a press relase only traditionally. But we will publish a more in-depth report in March called ‘topics’.”

Höppe springs eternal

Intriguingly Jeworrek’s Munich Re colleague Peter Höppe, who is also quoted by the BBC, is an author of the Science paper cited above, which stresses the current impossibility of attributing natural disaster losses to the effects of global warming. At the Prometheus blog, Höppe’s co-author on the Science paper, Roger Pielke Jr from the University of Colorado, flags up the divergence between the words of Höppe-the-scientist and Höppe-the-insurer:

Munich Re scientists (Hoeppe and E. Faust) publish in Science that attribution of losses to greenhouse gas emissions is not presently possible, and a Munich Re board member says that such attribution is ‘very probably’ leading to more extreme events,” notes Pielke.

It’s certainly hard to see how an insurance company can have had more success than ‘the world’s 2500 top climate scientists’ at isolating the effect of climate change on the occurrence of severe weather events. But then again, perhaps we can look forward to the IPCC citing Munich Re on matters of climate-change-induced weather patterns in its own reports in the future. And in a world where top scientists are wont to defer to economists on scientific matters of climate change, that is not such an unlikely possibility.

The economist in question is Professor Lord Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Report.

Stern has rather a close working relationship with Munich Re. Understandably, Munich Re is rather proud of the fact that its dirty insurance money funds such a high profile environmentalist.

Professor Lord Sir Nick has nothing to be embarrassed about, because nobody – least of all the BBC – seems at all bothered by any such conflict of interests. They are all too busy worrying about who Exxon is funding. Those who shriek the loudest about climate change – whether it’s insurance companies, Stern, the Royal Society, Lord Adair Turner or the Tickell dynasty – often have the most to gain from alarmism.

The insurance premiums we pay are largely based on the historical record – but they also include some measure of the risk of the risk of damage tomorrow. This needs to be rational calculation: if the risk of catastrophic climate change is exaggerated, then we are paying too much.

It seems that the greens have been right all along: an economic tail really does wag the scientific dog.

There's gold in green: profiting from climate change

Imagine an unpopular, impotent, and fragile UK Government, trying to make political capital out of a looming crisis. To avoid being embarrassed by criticism of its shallow policies, it appoints an independent panel of experts, to which it defers controversial decisions. Now imagine that the panel proposes measures from which its members and their associates will directly benefit.

It couldn’t happen here, you may think. Scandal and resignations would surely follow. Who could possibly allow vested interests to profit from the legislation they are instrumental in creating?

This week, an independent panel of experts called the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published the details of its recent advice to Parliament that the UK should reduce its CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

There’s no doubt there’s money to be made from this new legislation, which was passed last week. A recent conference, given the title ‘Cashing in on Carbon’ was, in its own words, “aimed squarely at investment banks, investors and major compliance buyers and is focused on how they can profit today from an increasingly diverse range of carbon-related investment opportunities”.

Amongst these bean-counters-turned-Gaia-botherers were representatives from IDEAcarbon, which offers carbon market intelligence, ratings and advice to governments, organisations and companies. Climate Change Committee member, Samuel Fankhauser, a former climate change economist for the World Bank, is the company’s managing director, strategic advice. IDEAcarbon’s parent company, IDEAglobal, appointed Nicholas Stern, author of the highly influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and former chief economist at the World Bank, as vice chairman, last year.

The group has its eyes on the carbon market, which it says “grew from $10bn to $34bn between 2005 and 2006”, and projects to be worth well over $100bn in the future.

A “carbon market” is built on the idea that, if greenhouse gas emissions are capped by law, then the legal right to emit these gasses becomes a commodity that can be traded. But without legislation, there can be no market, as IDEAcarbon (pdf) acknowledges:

The global carbon market is moving into a critical new phase of development. If it is to succeed over the long term, both in its role in reducing carbon emissions and as a financial market in its own right, legislators need to provide certainty of a regulatory framework that will be robust, flexible, and valid over the long term.

The company’s website is surprisingly candid about the influence it exerts over the UK Government:

Working with the key decision makers who are shaping the future of the market enables us to accurately predict market trends and provide tailored strategic advice to clients.

In other words, the interests of investors and national policy makers must be aligned. And it would be most fortunate if they were one and the same.

There’s gold in that there green

Prominent environmental campaigner, and author of Kyoto 2, how to manage the Global Greenhouse, Oliver Tickell protests of carbon trading schemes that, “Carbon fortunes are indeed being made, and many of them in the City of London, which dominates the global carbon marketplace”. Instead, he favours carbon offsetting – paying poor people not to develop their economies – rather than trading.

But Oliver’s eyes are greener than his mind; he too stands to profit from his environmental activism. His father, former diplomat and patron of the neo-Malthusian Optimum Population Trust, Sir Crispin Tickell, who made the first arguments influential for the greening of the UK Government in the 1970s with his book, Climatic Change and World Affairs, was appointed chair of a committee to check the integrity of carbon-offsetting firm, Climate Care, part of JPMorgan’s Environmental Markets group.

Oliver Tickell is a shareholder and is entitled to 0.3 per cent of royalties. Asked if there was a conflict of interest, his father told The Times: “Frankly, no.”

But, frankly, it seems increasingly the case that not far behind the characters and campaigns influencing the Government’s climate polices are private interests, waiting to cash in on climate legislation. They are dressed as superhero ‘social entrepreneurs’, saving the planet, but unless we take environmental doom for granted, they could be said to be cashing in on fear.

Former Greenpeace activist, and founder of alternative energy firm Solarcentury and the world’s first private equity fund for renewable energy, Bank Sarasin’s New Energies Invest AG, Jeremy Leggett, was, between 2002 and 2006, a member of the UK Government’s Renewables Advisory Board. The board, it explains.

…aims to provide the Secretary of State with independent, impartial and authoritative advice on policies, programmes and measures, to improve Government understanding of the obstacles and opportunities for the development and deployment of renewable technologies in the UK”

Impartial? Independent? Buy a solar panel – from Leggett, perhaps – and the UK Government will stump up £2,500 of the costs. Schools, charities and the public sector can receive up to 50 per cent of costs up to £1 million in grants. The inefficient, expensive, and unreliable Green Energy Revolution®™ cannot stand on its own two feet, and is heavily subsidised.

Conflict? What conflict?

Chairman of the Climate Change Committee and former advisor to investment firm Climate Change Capital Lord Turner heats the swimming pool at his second home – the first is a mansion in Kensington – with solar panels, while warning that “growth has to be dethroned” for the sake of the planet.

Such lofty ideals come easily to millionaires such as Turner. But for the billions of people who lack such wealth, Turner’s words sound like a door slamming behind him. For, if Turner and his team get their way, every kilogram of carbon will be audited by carbon market firms, some of which will likely be managed by certain CCC members and their associates, at a price, making energy increasingly expensive.

We posed some questions to the government departments. First stop, the Climate Change Legislation Team at DEFRA. Did they see that there was a conflict of interests?

“You’re plucking stories out of thin air”, a DEFRA press officer told u.

We asked the Climate Change Committee itself to comment on the idea that there was a conflict of interest.

“You’ve got no evidence”, said their press officer.

But what evidence does one need to show that a conflict of interest exists, other than to point out where the interests lie? We wondered what steps had been taken to make sure that no conflict of interest existed?

“Committee members were asked to declare any conflicts of interest at the time of their appointment. None were declared”, they told us.

Asked if they were politically motivated, the CCC told us

“The CCC has been set up to independently advise Government on tackling climate change and as such does not adhere to any particular ideological agenda. Our analysis is based on factual evidence.”

We asked each department if there was any register of interests – shares, commitments to political causes, and son on – like there is for members of the House of Commons or House of Lords.

The CCC said there was no such register, simply that appointees were asked to declare anything at the beginning, and that they hadn’t.

So that’s that then. The extent of the scrutiny of appointments to public roles is to ask candidates if there is a conflict of interest. And we have to take their word for it.

Now imagine if it emerged that the panel of experts included a number of oil industry executives – and that the policy advice had recommended lower emissions targets. There would be outrage.

The Commmittee favours a narrow set of solutions, ignoring adaptation and biomass management in favour of carbon markets, from which the participants directly benefit.

(“The whole issue of adaptation needs to be taken off the back burner and receive a lot more serious attention,” the executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat Yvo de Boer now says, citing biomass management as an example).

The claim that the nefarious influence of dirty, dirty oil money has forced action to prevent catastrophic climate change is a mainstay of the environmental movement. It divides the world into villains and heroes. Typical is this broadside by Climate Change Commmittee member, and erstwhile president of the Royal Society, Lord May:

On one hand we have the IPCC, the rest of the world’s major scientific organisations, and the government’s chief scientific adviser, all pointing to the need to cut emissions. On the other we have a small band of sceptics, including lobbyists funded by the US oil industry, a sci-fi writer, and the Daily Mail, who deny the scientists are right.

May might argue that there had been a failure of due process. After all, if Parliament defers to the advice of a committee on the basis that it is not equipped to make good policy, it cannot scrutinise the findings of the committee, and so must accept their advice, or be seen to be acting contrary to the evidence that it has sought.

But shouldn’t we subject the real winners of the climate change debate to the same scrutiny that Lord May subjects climate sceptics?

The New Green Aristocracy: They don't work for you

An aristocracy is a form of government by an elite that considers itself to possess greater virtues than the hoi polloi, giving it the right to rule in its own interests. Aristocrats were referred to as ‘the nobility’, or ‘nobs’. These days we prefer decisions to be made democratically – the idea being that we can judge for ourselves which ideas serve our interests, thank you very much, ma’am.

But in recent years, politicians have sought legitimacy for their positions from outside of the democratic process. A new aristocracy is emerging from the emptiness of UK politics – and it’s considerably more virtuous than thou.

Last Thursday, foreign secretary Ed Miliband announced the government was committing to an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – up from 60 per cent. This was the latest in a game of politics by numbers, in which the major parties outbid each other to commit to the most punishing targets, each party claiming that its own reduction target best represented ‘the science’.

Embarrassed at being so easily trumped, environment secretary Hilary Benn announced changes to the Climate Change Bill – being debated today – last October. A new Climate Change Committee (CCC) of scientific and economic experts would advise Parliament on what targets best represented the science. Ed Miliband’s announcement followed the first advice from the CCC, given to him by the Committee’s chair, Lord Adair Turner, in a letter earlier in the week.

At first glance, this appears to be a sensible way of formulating policy. If “tackling climate change” is a purely technical challenge, why not leave it to the experts? The problem is that it’s not a purely technical challenge, and it makes many political assumptions. Lord Turner is surprisingly candid about this:

Climate science cannot predict with absolute certainty how emissions paths will translate into temperature increases and how temperature increases will translate into damage. Deciding what level of temperature increase is harmful is therefore inherently judgemental.

Yet public scrutiny of this judgement call is disastrously absent from the climate change debate.

For example, according to the conventional wisdom, “climate change will be worse for the poor”, and this forms a substantial part of the argument for emissions reduction. But an argument for making people wealthy could have the same basis. After all, the human cost of extreme weather in the developed world is far lower than equivalent phenomena in poorer countries. But arguments for wealth are necessarily political. They depend fundamentally on us understanding our own interests. Meanwhile, the argument for drastic carbon reduction and lifestyle change is principally ethical: it claims that matters of fact exist, which dictate the terms and limits that society must respond to, or else we will face catastrophe. At the same time, the argument goes, politics can only fail to respond to these matters of fact, because people are too self-interested, and lack the ability to understand the complexities of climate science.

In other words, we lack the virtues necessary to make decisions about the future.

Moreover, politicians have mirrored the public’s cynicism of politicians with their own cynicism of politics. Accordingly, they are ever keener to demonstrate their ethical credentials – their virtues – than they are in explaining the potential of their political ideas. They don’t have any.

New science or nonsense?

Contrary to many a green claim, science has been unable to provide unambiguous advice from which climate change policies can be formulated. Hence Labour, the Tories, the Lib-Dems, the Greens, and various activists, have all made different policies, and argued that the others will lead us inevitably to environmental catastrophe. The CCC has been appointed in an attempt to settle the matter because matters of fact simply do not exist, and politicians lack the authority to make an ‘ethical’ argument for climate mitigation themselves.

According to the CCC, the 60 per cent figure which appears in the Draft Bill was based on advice given in a report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in 2000.

“Since the report, however, new information has become available”, says the CCC.

But this information is not uncontroversial, and no matter how many climate studies have produced research which reveal isolated trends that are worse than anticipated, it is the sum of their effects which is important. The Royal Commission produced its recommendation after considering a range of emissions scenarios and their likely outcomes in terms of global temperature changes. The IPCC in 2007 did a very similar thing.

RCEP vs IPCC temperature estimates

2007 saw the IPCC more optimistic about the extent of future warming than the RCEP were in 2000. So why isn’t the CCC calling for a reduction in CO2 emissions targets?

Perhaps it could still be claimed that society is more vulnerable to climate than was previously understood. But, again, this is not “science”. It’s a speculative claim about the extent to which the direction of society is determined by climatic conditions – and exactly the kind of soft judgement which Turner admits. Yet the Committee is unable to reflect on the judgements it has had to make because reflection is beyond the Committee’s scope of enquiry. Moreover, The CCC’s members have no interest in doing so. Vested interests abound.

All aboard the gravy train

Lord Turner, who is also chair of the Financial Services Authority, was a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, and a member of the Board of Advisors at Climate Change Capital, an “investment manager and advisor specialising in the opportunities created by the transition to the low carbon economy”. Turner’s colleague, Dr Samuel Fankhauser, is the managing director of IDEAcarbon, which provides financial services in the carbon finance sector. The company belongs to the IDEAglobal group, whose vice chairman is Sir Nicholas Stern. As the company’s website says:

“Working with the key decision makers who are shaping the future of the market enables us to accurately predict market trends and provide tailored strategic advice to clients.”

So the people who stand to profit from markets created by climate change legislation are instrumental in creating that legislation.

Another member of the CCC is Lord Bob May, who has been increasingly vocal about climate change politics in recent years. He said in the TLS last year that “there remains an active and well-funded ‘denial lobby’. It shares many features with the lobby that for so long denied that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer.” But if May is worried about ‘well-funded’ financial interests influencing the Government, he might well take a hard look at the CCC itself.

So the small number of people who determine the UK’s response to climate change are not independent, and appear to have professional, financial and political interests in both the escalation of the climate crisis, and legislation designed to prevent it. These interests and the wider establishment’s political exhaustion are hidden behind the CCC’s scientific authority – a virtue in accordance with climate change ethics.

As politicians have struggled to define themselves politically, they have retreated from democratic ideas. Voting is merely a formality – there are no ideas being contested, and legitimacy is sought instead from other public institutions such as ‘science’. The purpose of new committees of experts is not to inform the climate change debate, but to create ethics for politicians to clothe themselves in. It gives seemingly legitimate purpose and direction to a purposeless and directionless establishment. The purpose of the climate change bill is not to save us from catastrophe, but to set the scene for a new climate change aristocracy to rule over us in its own interests.