Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the OPT

On the BBC’s Horizon tonight, Sir David Attenborough, patron of the Optimum Population Trust, tackles the question How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?

Except he doesn’t. He comes up with an answer alright – 15 billion if we all live like the average Indian, 2.5 billion if we all live like we do in the UK, and 1.5 billion if we all live like fat, horrible Americans. It’s all derived entirely from standard ecological footprint stuff.

Attenborough tells us that:

Malthus’s principle remains true. The productive capacity of the Earth has physical limits. And those limits will ultimately determine how many human beings it can support.

We were looking forward to hearing a good argument for why that might be. It’s Sir David Attenborough, after all. There wasn’t one. Just lots of footage of people without access to enough food, water etc. No historical or political context. Just lots of simplistic environmental determinism. Apparently even the Rwandan civil war/genocide/whatever you want to call it was the result of too many people. Nice. And of course…

But the picture may be even worse than this. These figures are based on rates of consumption that many think are already unsustainable.

Happily, for anyone wanting arguments for why Malthus, Attenborough and sustainability are wrong, here are some we prepared earlier:

In Praise of Unsustainability
Infinite Regress
Attenborough & the Descent of Man

Newsnight of the Living Dead

For those who missed Wednesday’s edition of BBC2’s Newsnight, we highly recommend that you watch it:

When you’re asked to adapt your lifestyle to combat climate change, what goes through your head? Do you embrace the challenge, switch off the lights and reach for the hair-shirt? Or do you shut your eyes, bury your head in a carbon-luxurious lifestyle and hope it will all go away? Tonight we ask what the green movement has really achieved. Yes, they’ve brought the issue to the national conscience. But are they now becoming part of the problem by rejecting so many potential solutions? They style themselves as radical, but are they actually too conservative? Tonight we put the great and the good of the green movement on trial.

It doesn’t quite live up to the promise, but it’s well worth it for the spectacle of Caroline Lucas, Zac Goldsmith, John Sauven, Franny Armstrong et al being lined up Weakest-Link-style for self-inflicted humiliation. Available on iPlayer here if you’re in the UK.

Has Climate Porn Already Tipped?

At the BBC’s Earth Watch blog, Richard Black takes a different perspective on the recent survey of the British public (well, 500 of them, anyway) and Climate Porn that we covered in our last post.

Among the emails that arrive in my inbox regularly on climate change, one sentiment expressed regularly is that the language of climate catastrophism is getting shriller and shriller as the arguments for the phenomenon collapse.

It’s one that I disagree with.

I think the language of catastrophism, chaos, doom – whatever you like to call it – has actually sobered up, in the UK at least, having peaked about three or four years ago when newspapers such as The Independent ran dramatic front pages on a regular basis, a new umbrella body for activists called Stop Climate Chaos came into existence, Roland Emmerich had the Atlantic Ocean freezing in an instant in The Day After tomorrow, and a leading thinktank lambasted a portion of the British press for indulging in “climate porn”.

Some long-time observers warned at the time that this would “turn people off”; the Cardiff study suggests they may have been right.

So is Richard right that global warming hysteria has diminished?

Thirteen months ago, the New Economics Foundation, with a group of other organisations including the UK’s Green Party, launched its 100 Months campaign, claiming that:

We have 100 months to save our climate. When the clock starts ticking, we could be beyond our climate’s tipping point, the point of no return.

In January, the Guardian reported James Hansen’s claim that the

President ‘has four years to save Earth’ – US must take the lead to avert eco-disaster.

Last month, John Beddington, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor foresaw a global environmental crisis in 2031:

As the world’s population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

Earlier that month, Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot did battle in the Guardian over whether the eco-apocalypse was inevitable or could just about be prevented if human nature could be contained by state institutions. Wrote Kingsnorth:

On the desk in front of me is a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each represents the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, population levels, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the human economy’s gross domestic product.

Wrote Monbiot, his brother in despair:

Like you I have become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash you predict. For the past few years I have been almost professionally optimistic, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. I still have some faith in our ability to make rational decisions based on evidence. But it is waning.

2009 also saw the release of the film, The Age of Stupid, which claims to be a documentary, but is in fact a fiction set in the future, charting the fall of civilisation as it was torn apart by Gaia’s wrath. Environmentalism’s inability to construct an understanding of the present forces it to base its fantasies – climate porn – from a position in the future. The film’s director, Franny Armstrong, was met in several public meetings by the UK’s Climate Change Minister, Ed Miliband, who was entirely unable to challenge her catastrophism, as we reported, back in June:

… it isn’t a debate. Miliband and Armstrong’s positions are not counterposed. Miliband is nothing if not a committed environmentalist. Yet he recognises that what both he and Armstrong want ain’t a vote-winner, and the public remain unconvinced about the environmental issue. Knowing that environmental policies therefore lack the legitimacy such far-reaching policies ought to have, he recently called for the green movement to demonstrate the kind of mass-movement that has driven political change in the past.

Miliband needed Armstrong, we said. To give his government’s policies moral legitimacy, she had thrown at him the figure that, according to the UN, 150,000 people die each year as a result of climate change, for which the UK would be culpable if it failed to act on climate change. As we pointed out in the same post, the figure had just been raised by the GHF, to 300,000 – another case of climate porn in 2009 – but both figures were dubious. What they entirely failed to show is how few people in the developing world died of causes attributed to climate change compared to other causes. In fact, as a cause it ranked the lowest, beneath obesity – not something you’d expect people in the Third world to suffer from. Moreover, what the figure entirely omits is that these secondary effects of climate change, were they experienced in the industrialised world, would likely have resulted in no deaths at all. And yet these 300,000 deaths are used as the basis for an argument for the mitigation of climate change rather than as a good reason for industrialisation and economic development. Such is the distorting effect of climate porn on political discourse.

Expressing the thesame symptoms of disorientation, here are some headlines from the Independent over the past year.

Is the Independent less shrill thanit used to be? Hardly.

Back in March, we wrote about the coverage of the Copenhagen climate discussions in the Guardian, most of which was written by David Adam. The following headlines all appeared in the same week:

  • Global warming may trigger carbon ‘time bomb’, scientist warns.
  • Caught on camera: The Greenland tunnels that could speed ice melt.
  • Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts.
  • Severe global warming will render half of world’s inhabited areas unliveable, expert warns.
  • Europe ‘will be hit by severe drought’ without urgent action on emissions.

Adam finished his week of misery with a podcast about what he took from the conference:

The message might sound familiar is that we have to act, and that we have to act now. But I think the scientists, they have been saying it for a while, and we’ve been saying it in the media for a while… but I think the scientists have lost a little bit of patience almost. I mean one said to me here that we’re sick of having our carefully constructed messages lost in the political noise. You know this is the scientific community standing up and saying enough is enough, we’ve lost patience, get your act together.

But as we pointed out at the time, in an echo of his criticism of climate porn in 2006, Professor Mike Hulme gives us reason to take Adam’s and the conference organisers’ claims to be reporting ‘scientific opinion’ verbatim with a pinch of salt.

What exactly is the ‘action’ the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions? I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognized as such.

[…]

But then we need to be clear about what authority these political messages carry. They carry the authority of the people who drafted them – and no more. Not the authority of the 2,500 expert researchers gathered at the conference. And certainly not the authority of collective global science. Caught between summarizing scientific knowledge and offering political interpretations of such knowledge, the six key messages seem rather ambivalent in what they are saying. It is as if they are not sure how to combine the quite precise statements of science with a set of more contested political interpretations.

Richard Black is perhaps a great deal more sensible in his reporting than his fellow journalists at the BBC, the Guardian, and the Independent. Yet he seems to have become immune to their sensational climate stories. They simply no longer register. But this desensitisation means a failure to reflect critically on environmentalism and its influence, and his journalism suffers as a consequence. With ‘a number of reports hinting that the pace of global temperature rise may have abated, for now at least’ in mind, Black considers whether this, rather than climate porn, may be having an influence over the direction of policy.

I wondered if this was being reflected in the intensive negotiations leading up to Copenhagen’s UN summit. After all, if governments were sensing a reason not to pledge difficult and potentially expensive transformations to their economies, you would expect them to take it.

Here, he misses the point that climate change isn’t something difficult for governments to cope with. It is actually convenient. The political establishment’s absorption of environmentalism allows it to substantially lower the standard by which it is measured, and gives authoritarianism a legitimising basis. The looming, inevitable environmental crisis instructs the public to lower their expectations accordingly. It means that rather than finding a way through problems such as energy supply, water and travel infrastructure, and of course, raising expectations, politicians can turn the normal business of politics around, and redefine the problem as one of individual morality. The statement that the public must use less electricity, must travel less, and must consume fewer resources is a statement that the public must expect less of politicians and politics, and behave themselves. The failure of the establishment’s collective imagination is what drives ‘climate change ethics’. The search for international agreements and legal frameworks to ‘combat climate change’ is a way of externalising what cannot legitimately be done domestically. Once in place, politicians can reasonably argue that punitive climate laws are a matter of international obligation; we are all bound by them, and cannot do anything about them. It defers politics and political accountibility to the strange, undemocratic, inaccessible space that exists between states.

Black continues…

Last week I had the chance to ask someone intimately involved in those negotiations. “No” was the answer – not reflected at all – in fact, what was being reflected were fears that the picture would be worse than the IPCC painted.

Climate porn operates at these levels, not just in the media. According to Black’s un-named climate negotiator, we can’t even trust the consensus – represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – to paint a reliable picture of the future. Therefore there can be no parameters by which we can begin to rationally understand or criticise the governmental, or inter-governmental response to climate change. Things can be perpetually based, not on what has been observed, or produced by science, but on the possibility that ‘the picture would be worse than the IPCC painted’… Climate porn, just as Hulme warned.

Black concludes by taking a closer look at the results produced by the survey of the British public, and determines, weakly, that theirs “and their leaders’ perceptions of climate change, in the UK and elsewhere, are not significantly out of step”.

Here, again, Black sees the world upside down. He can point to as many opinion polls and interpret them in as many ways as he likes: environmentalism has never been tested in the UK at the only poll that counts – democratic elections. Fear (climate porn), and hashed-together international frameworks (Copenhagen) – not democracy – are the vehicles through which environmental ideology cements itself in public institutions. Environmentalism’s influence within the establishment is ascendant precisely because the political establishment has such trouble connecting itself with the public.

Which is First: Chicken Little or the 'Perfect Storm'?

John Beddington is the UK’s Chief Scientific advisor and Professor of Applied Population Biology at Imperial College, London. On Monday, the soothsayer’s foresight was the subject of a BBC feature.

As the world’s population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

That’s the simple idea at the heart of the warning from John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030.

Specifically, he points to research indicating that by 2030 “a whole series of events come together”:

  • The world’s population will rise from 6bn to 8bn (33%)
  • Demand for food will increase by 50%
  • Demand for water will increase by 30%
  • Demand for energy will increase by 50%

The ‘coming together’ of all these trends, amounts to a ‘perfect storm’, set to arrive in 2031.

On an interview on BBC TV (also featured on the linked page) Beddington warns:

So these are all coming together. Indeed I was at a scientific meeting at the Royal Society only yesterday in which a prediction was that the Arctic might be free of ice in the summer of 2030.

The professor links climate change, resource abundance, agricultural productivity, and water management with a cataclysmic event situated 20 years in the future.

It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that more people will create more demand for water, energy, food, and planning. It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that if you fail to make plans for the future, you will likely face some sort of problem. So far, so not rocket science, and not applied population biology.

But what sort of planning is needed to cope with life in 2030? Why, at this point in humanity’s history is the provision of water, energy, and food so difficult and dangerous? We’re better at creating all of these things than at any point in the past. Just a few generations ago, mechanised water, and instant light in homes were an impossibility, never mind an inconceivable luxury. It wasn’t much before that that people were just getting used to the idea of using steam to propel machines, never mind splitting the atom to power computers, satellite links, and heart and lung machines.

In our advanced economies, subsistence is not a day-to-day concern for the vast majority of people, and this is rapidly becoming true for an increasing number of the world’s population living in developing economies. Western standards of living are on the horizon for people in all continents, who had been deprived of it. Just as in the West, there is no reason why, in just a few generations, water, electricity and cheap, good quality food can all be taken for granted.

Except, that is, for the opinion of the scientist John Beddington and his ilk. For them, human progress of this kind is ‘unsustainable’. He is concerned that 8 billion people will be unable to produce the water, energy and food they need. But might it not be possible that 8 billion people are better at meeting their needs than 6 billion? After all, the industrial revolution was not a response to the needs of a growing population, but was made possible by it. Have you ever tried building your own iPod, powered by your own handmade generator, in a house you built yourself, whilst growing your own food, fed with water from a well that you sunk yourself?

There is an attempt being made to ground politics in the ethics not merely of ‘sustainability’, but the harsh reality of mere subsistence. Accordingly, this diminishes the potential of politics, and our expectations of it. We are being asked to be thankful for every moment of heat, light, food, and warmth, rather than demanding of more, better, faster, higher. This is because politicians cannot conceive of any other notion of progress than mere survival. Their horizons are so low, and imaginations so limited, that they cannot conceive of attempting to organise public life around the possibility of a better future.

It is this pessimistic outlook within the political establishment that has misconceived human progress and how it is achieved. Paradoxically, it is scientists such as Beddington who are engaged to give their politics the appearance of legitimacy. But this is because Beddington’s science is expedient to their political aims, not because Beddington’s science can produce a robust analysis of the future, such that he can tell you what the year 2030 will look like if you haven’t listened to him. ‘Applied population biology’ is the science of the day because it is the most convenient to the politics of the day, just as Kennedy’s lunar project made heroes out of rocket scientists. But at least rocket scientists looked upwards, and their project broke boundaries. Beddington’s science is expedient because it allows politicians to set boundaries.

What this says to us is that politics is prior to the science. Beddington’s appointment is political. Beddington’s science has developed in an era which demands it. It is predicated on an understanding of humanity’s relationship with the natural world as being ultimately limited by what nature provides, rather than what humanity develops (or is capable of developing) in order to overcome such limits. That makes an ethic out of limiting progress and development to that which nature provides. But this ethic is, again, prior to the science.

The Chicken Little comes well before the perfect storm.

And here’s another flapping misanthrope

Future-Present Imperfect Imperative

The English language is just not equipped with the verb tenses required to report environmental news stories easily. Where’s the tense that would allow environment reporters to write stories about predictions about the future as if they are occurring in the present, for example? As it is, such ‘scientists predict that climate change is happening now’ stories have to be carefully constructed so that the switches between future and present tenses don’t spoil the flow of the piece and get in the way of the all important message about the ravages of climate change. We’ve written about them before. Another popped up on the BBC at the weekend.

First, it identifies the ravage:

It is almost halfway through the rainy season, and the monsoon in many parts of South Asia continues to remain unreliable.

In some places it has been crippling weak, while in others it has been devastatingly intense.

There are places reeling from drought, yet at the same time there are areas that have been hit by torrential rains, triggering floods and landslides in a very short span of time.

This has made the lives of millions of people difficult and has left them increasingly worried for the future.

Very little of the arable land is irrigated, and local populations depend on monsoon rainfall for agriculture.

The monsoon clouds have weakened in several parts of the region and the variable and erratic rains have left weather forecasters scratching their heads

Then it pops the big question:

This failure of the monsoons to behave as expected has led to the question of whether climate change is to blame.

Experts differ on whether these changes are directly linked to climate.

Then it gets stuck into the debate. Some experts say climate change is not the culprit (or that there is not even anything out of the ordinary going on that needs explaining):

“This year’s monsoon behaviour cannot yet be attributed to climate change as it is still within the observed natural variability of the monsoon,” said Krishna Kumar Kanikicharla, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

“Our assessment of climate model simulations for the current and the next century indicate no significant deviation until the middle of the 21st Century. Thereafter, the monsoon rainfall will continue to increase by 8-10% from current levels.”

Aregional research centre in Bangladesh found what it called “cyclic changes”, but has identified no effects so far that can be attributed to climate change.

[…]

Some researchers suggest that this is a natural “shift” in the pattern of rainfall.

“We studied three 30-year window periods from 1951 to 2000 and found that there was a slow shift in the rainfall scenarios,” said Sujit Kumar Deb Sarma, a researcher with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Meteorological Research Centre in Bangladesh.

“Places that got more rain are receiving lower rainfall and vice versa.

“But we also found that after some time the rainfall patterns go back to what they were before and slowly start changing again. It’s a cyclic change that has been happening [for] years.”

While others are not so sure:

But authorities in Pakistan believe the falling monsoon rainfall may have been the result of climate change.

“There may have been some impacts of climate change,” said Mr Chaudhry of the Pakistan Met Office.

“We know that the El Nino events have been affecting our rainfall all these years, but climate change could be aggravating the situation even more.”

Meteorologists in Nepal too think global warming may have some role in the changing monsoon pattern the country has been experiencing.

“There are so many factors including the El Nino effect that have been affecting the monsoon but we cannot say that these changes are not because of global warming,” said Mani Ratna Shakya, head of the weather forecasting division.

International studies have also pointed at the relationship between the monsoon and climate change.

Not looking good for the climate change hypothesis, then. Against: studies that find no influence of AGW but do identify various other factors. For: Well, you can’t rule it out entirely. The BBC doesn’t give up that easily though. Time to get jiggy with those tenses:

A study by researchers at Purdue University, US, found that the South Asian monsoon could be weakened and delayed as a result of rising temperatures in the future.

“Climate change could influence monsoon dynamics and cause lower summer precipitation, a delay to the start of the monsoon season and longer breaks between the rainy periods.”

Another report recently prepared for the Australian government has shown that potentially greater threats could be abrupt changes to the oceans and atmosphere that lead to irreversible switches in weather or ocean patterns – so-called tipping points.

“An example is the Indian monsoon. According to some models that could switch into a drier mode in a matter of years,” the report’s author Will Steffen, executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, told Reuters.

The fourth assessment report of the IPCC had this to say about the monsoon: “It is likely that warming associated with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause an increase of Asian summer monsoon precipitation variability.

“Changes in the monsoon mean duration and strength depend on the details of the (greenhouse gases) emission scenario.”

Do the changes mean weather forecasters will have a tough time ahead predicting the monsoon as they have had this year?

Indian Meteorological Department chief BP Yadav admitted that could be the case: “There are already some indications of increase in the variability of weather parameters, so when you have a high variability in any events like rainfall or temperature, definitely the work of predicting them becomes more difficult,” he said.

It would all be so much easier for everyone concerned if we could just linguistically lump the present in with the conditional future from the word go. Something like ‘Climate change is will being responsible for [insert climatological ravage here]’ should cover it.

Regardless of whether there’s a detectable impact of climate change on monsoon patterns, there are, according to the story itself, detectable impacts of a host of other factors. But as it is reported, that all gets lost in the hand-wringing about whether climate change might possibly have something – anything – to do with it. The chances are that were it not for the sniff of a climate scare angle, the fact that rainfall patterns this year are causing some big problems for Asian agriculture wouldn’t have made it onto the BBC at all.

It’s embarrassing. Why should it matter a jot whether climate change has anything to do with variations in rainfall if, as the article mentions, you don’t have the irrigation systems to cope with those variations? We often say that environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is usually in the context that it tends to disapprove of the very development that make people less vulnerable to the environment. But, as the BBC piece demonstrates, it is also true in the sense that environmentalism obscures the truth that lots of people are vulnerable in ways that have nothing to do with climate change whatsoever. That’s true now like it was in the past. It’s just a shame that there’s so little interest in changing it for the future.

The Lady Doth Protest too Much…

After a 20-year-long role at the BBC, Peter Sissons has attacked the anti-journalistic culture at the BBC. Writing in the Mail on Sunday (the article has been taken off-line for some reason), Sissons outlines some key reasons for his decision to leave.

This bit caught our eye – look out for a familiar name.

Two other events disturbed me during the last few years.

Before I left News At Ten, I had to read out on air the BBC’s longest apology. It lasted nearly two minutes, and in it the BBC apologised to a diamond-mining firm called Oryx Natural Resources.

A report had falsely linked the firm with Al Qaeda, accusing one of its major shareholders of being a convicted terrorist. The two men had the same surname.

This humiliation for the BBC could have been avoided if one of journalism’s basic rules had been followed: if you think that you’ve got someone bang to rights, ring them up and ask them what they’ve got to say about it. But the story was, as they say, too good to check, and it greatly dented the BBC’s journalistic reputation, as well as its libel fund.

The other episode happened more recently. On a wintry Saturday last December, there was what was billed as a major climate change rally in London.

The leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, went into the Westminster studio to be interviewed by me on the BBC News channel. She clearly expected what I call a ‘free hit’; to be allowed to voice her views without being challenged on them.

I pointed out to her that the climate didn’t seem to be playing ball at the moment. We were having a particularly cold winter, even though carbon emissions were increasing. Indeed, there had been no warming for ten years, contradicting all the alarming computer predictions.

Well, she was outraged. I don’t have the actual transcript, but Miss Lucas told me angrily that it was disgraceful that the BBC — the BBC! — should be giving any kind of publicity to those sort of views. I believe I am one of a tiny number of BBC interviewers who have so much as raised the possibility that there is another side to the debate on climate change.

The Corporation’s most famous interrogators invariably begin by accepting that ‘the science is settled’, when there are countless reputable scientists and climatologists producing work that says it isn’t.

But it is effectively BBC policy, enthusiastically carried out by the BBC environment correspondents, that those views should not be heard — witness the BBC statement last year that ‘BBC News currently takes the view that their reporting needs to be calibrated to take into account the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made’.

Politically the argument may be settled, but any inquisitive journalist can find ample evidence that scientifically it is not.

I was not proud to be working for an organisation with a corporate mind so closed on such an important issue. Disquiet over my interview with Miss Lucas, incidentally, went right to the top at the BBC although, naturally, they never sought to discuss it with me. For me, this is not an issue about the climate, it is an issue about the duty of the journalist.

The truth of the matter is that for all the above reasons, I was no longer comfortable at BBC News. It remains an iconic organisation, but it stands at the crossroads.

The BBC is not able to challenge politicians in its mainstream output. Sure, there are occasionally sceptic opinions permitted onto the airwaves, but for a high-profile journalist to ask a challenging question is to speak out of turn. As Sissons implies, the BBC sees its responsibility principally to reproduce environmental ideology, not to hold politicians to account.

But let’s not single out the BBC. The culture that exists at the BBC is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of which the BBC is just another victim. Lucas’s reaction demonstrates that she is simply not used to being challenged. Rather than seeking to explain Sissons’s challenge – perhaps using the very science she claims gives her political ideas legitimacy – she merely gets angry. It’s not even as if Sissons’s questions were particularly probing. She could easily have replied along the lines that a single bout of cold weather does not detract from an upward trend, for example. It is the fact that she does not that makes the question so revealing.

As we have argued here on Climate Resistance, climate change has become the means by which journalists and politicians alike have sought to reorientate their moral compasses. Accordingly, the world is increasingly seen through the prism of climate change. But by grounding themselves in ‘facts’, rather than in more philosophical commitments to principles, values, or even political ideas, politicians and journalists make themselves vulnerable. It means that if the ‘facts’ are challenged, their entire perspective on the world crumbles, and their value as journalists/politicians disintegrates. This is why we find journalists and politicians reacting so angrily to even the merest hint or whiff of ‘denial’.

Environmentalism is a symptom of being unable to explain the world, particularly on behalf of the establishment. It seeks to ground itself on facts, but cannot tolerate criticism. As we are fond of saying, the crisis is in politics, not in the sky.

(H/T: Austin and Rupert).

Hogging the Climate Change Gravy Train

Nearly two years ago, we wrote a post about ‘research’ emerging from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, showing that fat people contribute disproportionately to climate change.

True to the commandments of environmentalism – Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle – the researchers have put a new spin on their old stuff. Why bother doing new research when you can pass the same old leftovers to hungry newsrooms? The BBC wolfed it down whole without chewing, for their article 1970s lifestyle ‘protects planet’:

Getting back to the relatively slim, trim days of the 1970s would help to tackle climate change, researchers say.

The rising numbers of people who are overweight and obese in the UK means the nation uses 19% more food than 40 years ago, a study suggests.

That could equate to an extra 60 mega tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, the team calculated.

This ‘calculation’ must come at the end of a great deal of science… you would expect, wouldn’t you? But the article published in this month’s issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology (full paper available here) might just as well have been written in ketchup on the back of a hamburger wrapper. It simply puts a few theoretically not-entirely-implausible numbers to the same old argument that fat people are killing the polar bears:

In 2000, the total global emission of GHGs was 42 Giga tonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalents, for a world population of 6 billion. One billion people might therefore be considered responsible for 7 GT of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. Since food production by the agricultural sector accounts for 20% of total GHG emissions, food production might account for 1.4 GT (20%) of the 7 GT per year for the normal population. A 19% increase in food consumption by an overweight population would therefore result in an increase in GHG emissions to 1.67 GT per year—an absolute increase of 0.27 GT per year.

A snarktastic commentary from The Register exposes how the researchers’ calculations are fraught with technical problems:

Public-health researchers in London have come up with a new plan to save the planet: wealthy westerners should all reduce by several inches in height by starving their children. This would not only save food, but make people much lighter, meaning that cars and buses would use less fuel. [etc]

The research paper itself is only marginally less funny:

Compared with the normal population, we would expect the overweight population to have higher transportation fuel energy use because of the additional fuel energy needed to transport heavier people. The proportionate increase in fuel energy use (and thus GHG emissions) due to a person’s weight per kilometre is estimated as car weight plus half the mass of the person, divided by car weight (Leonard Evans, personal communication) […] we assumed that all individuals with BMI < 30 kg/m2 use an average small car (e.g. Ford Fiesta) and that individuals with BMI 30 kg/m2 use a car with more internal space (e.g. Ford Galaxy). The Ford Fiesta weighs 1530 kg and produces 147 gCO2 per km, whereas the Ford Galaxy weighs 2415 kg and produces 197 gCO2 per km.

Heavier people tend to eat more, and require more energy to move, you see? And to drive cars named after chocolate bars.

But it’s not the numbers that are important here. The authors conclude:

We argue that increased population adiposity, because of its contribution to climate change from additional food and transport GHG emissions, should be recognized as an environmental problem.

These researchers made their point several years ago. Yes, in some very theoretical way, fat people must indeed contribute disproportionately to climate change. But it is at this inconsequential factoid that this inconsequential research ceases to be of use to mankind’s progress. That its producers trot it out again, and again, and again, each time to a press that laps up with credulity the salacious headline that fat-people are planet-killers, surely represents one thing: the desire to explain everything in terms of its relation to the issue of climate change.

At one end, this tendency represents a rather naked attempt to position oneself as a relevant player in the climate debate to secure a research budget. But there may be more to it, because at the other end, this may reflect the increasing influence of environmental ideology. Accordingly, this research is either a self-serving, cynical attempt to use the obesity issue for self-gain, or it is the ignorant work of ‘scientists’ who have failed to eliminate the social prejudice and values they bring to their research.

It might also be wondered what was so good about the 1970s. It was a terrible decade for people throughout the world, but especially in the UK. Things got so bad that the country had to ask the IMF for a loan, and businesses were instructed to operate for only three days a week. The decade was characterised by strike after strike after strike. Even gravediggers went on strike in Liverpool, meaning coffins were literally stacked up while the families of the bereaved waited to give them funerals. London’s landmarks were used as storage for rubbish, because refuse collection workers went on strike, leading to an epidemic of rats. Manufacturing decline and economic stagnation left millions unemployed, and the political conflicts endured well into the 80s. These are the circumstances which produced the ‘healthy’ diet of the 1970s – perhaps it was because people were poor that they ate less meat and fat. That is not a good thing, and arguably, it is a worse thing than being slim is good. The myopia of the researchers intending to bring public health and environmental issues to bear on public policy is similarly a dangerous thing. Bloated on their own self-importance, they create the basis on which authority can interfere with people’s lives while simultaneously relinquishing themselves of the responsibility for improving their conditions.

B*llsh*t B*ll*cks Cr*p

Some journalists are supposed to be critical of government. It is their job. Some journalists are supposed to make arguments in favour of government policy. It is their job, even if the result is bland and inconsequential. Some journalists feign ‘balance’ by reporting what both sides of a ‘debate’ have to say.

It is easy to criticise journalists for their biases. But bias is part of the job of reporting. If journalists had no perspective to offer, there would be no point in the news.

But the BBC’s coverage of events is curious. It reported today that:

The chancellor has announced measures aimed at cutting the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions – as part of £1bn spending to tackle climate change.

The Budget commits the UK to cut CO2 emissions by 34% by 2020.

There is much to say about the Government’s campaign to make the UK greener. For instance, it could be asked what kind of legitimacy its policies have, since environmentalism has never been tested by the UK’s democratic process. Neither has it been established exactly whose interests green policies have been designed to serve.

These things don’t interest the journalists at the BBC:

Industry has pushed for the measures, saying it will allow them to invest in “greener” technologies, but scientists say the targets do not go far enough.

Which ‘industry’? When? More to the point, which scientists?

Environmental group Friends of the Earth said the emissions cuts were far too weak to allow the UK to “play its part in avoiding dangerous climate change”.

But Friends of the Earth aren’t scientists.

The New Economics Foundation dismissed the Budget as being “more beige than green”.

But the New Economics Foundation aren’t scientists either.

Christian Aid’s climate policy expert Dr Alison Doig said the UK and other industrialised nations needed to urgently commit to deeper emissions cuts ahead of a climate change summit in Copenhagen in December.

Last time we checked, Christian Aid weren’t scientists.

The offer of taxpayer money to support carbon capture and storage would put pressure on government to make sure such projects were delivered on time to the benefit of the UK consumer, said Jim Fitzgerald, a director at Ernst & Young.

Ernst & Young aren’t scientists.

The article does not quote a single scientist.

This is the curious thing: the BBC reporter seems to imagine that these various special interest groups speak ‘for science’. Even more curious is that, in terms of ideological bias, neither the reporter, the Government, nor the interest groups represent opposing ‘sides’. The differences between them only amount to theoretical degrees of commitment to the same ideas. At the same time that the journalist has written an article critical of the government, he or she has written something that is sympathetic.

If you wanted to know what the NEF, Christian Aid and Friends of the Earth were saying about today’s budget, you’d have been better off visiting their websites. The BBC seemingly presents these activists’ views, not only as scientific authorities, but as though they – the BBC – had gone to the trouble of soliciting these organisations for their opinion, and that the quotes are responses to their own probing questions. And yet all the quotes are in fact simply lifted word-for-word from press releases. Not only does the BBC pander to the shrillest voices, but it apparently does so by design.

The anonymous BBC journalist hack gives the authority of science to these special interests, as though they were neutral, objective and disinterested observers of the government, not the ideologically-driven, unaccountable, and undemocratic activists which they are. This frames the debate as though it were itself between a government dragging its feet, and pure objectivity.

Even more curious, we’re supposed to think that a green budget would be a good thing, because it is something ‘industry has pushed for’, and the ‘scientists’ (aka activist organisations) have said that ‘the first ever carbon budgets is a ground-breaking step’. But what about you and I? When do our views on environmental policies get checked? Not at the ballot box. Not in Parliament. Not on the BBC.

The halfwit hack cannot even tell the difference between a scientist and a campaigning organisation. What hope has he or she of producing an informative article, with or without bias?

Messianic green activist Al Gore is credited with raising the profile of the ‘balance as bias’ hypothesis, which posits that the perception of the climate debate has been distorted by giving air time to ‘deniers’, giving the impression that there still exists a debate within the scientific community. Of course, it works the other way too, but Gore conveniently forgets that.

Let us propose another hypothesis. The bullshit-as-bias hypothesis. The perception of the climate debate is distorted by bollocks journalism, such as the BBC exhibits today. It cannot bring any intelligence to its reporting, cannot reflect critically on any of the opinions it reports, and is entirely credulous about whatever it sees or hears. It is the slack-jawed, hollow-headed cretin it imagines its audience to be. News: digested and delivered in exactly the way that excessive dietary fibre is. Complete crap.

Is JR Killing the Polar Bears?

‘Tis the season of resurrections. And right on cue, science PR is working overtime to bring the polar-ice soap opera back from the dead.

Following a disappointing summer of 2008, in which the ‘worst ever’ Arctic ice scenarios prophesied at the start of the year failed to materialise, there was the danger that viewers would start channel-hopping. Something had to be done.

To get things rolling, the scriptwriters at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) have introduced a couple of new characters for the 2009 season – winter maximum sea ice extent and ice thickness, both of which made an appearance in the first episode aired this week by the BBC:

The Arctic sea-ice reached its maximum extent this year on 28 February, slightly earlier than usual, and remained roughly constant through March.

Averaged over March, the sea-ice covered 15.16 million sq km (5.85 million sq miles).

By comparison, this was 590,000 sq km (228,000 sq miles) below the average for the years 1979 to 2000, and 730,000 sq km (282,000 sq miles) above the record low of 2006.

and

“Thickness is important, especially in the winter, because it is the best overall indicator of the health of the ice cover,” said NSIDC scientist Walt Meier.

“As the ice cover in the Arctic grows thinner, it grows more vulnerable to melting in the summer.”

In the 1980s, thick multi-year ice made up 30-40% of the cover, the scientists say.

The summer minimum area is changing much faster than the winter maxima, shrinking by about 0.7% per year. Last year UK researchers showed that the ice has also markedly thinned in recent years.

The BBC story followed a series of press releases that the NSIDC started pumping out to journalists just as soon as the melt season had begun. This is what has popped up in our inbox this month so far:

April 1, 2009
Sea ice cover over the Arctic Ocean typically reaches its maximum geographic extent and thickness just as spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the winter maximum extent has been lower during the last six winters than at any other time during thirty years of satellite records. Scientists have also observed that ice thickness and age are changing. They will present their analyses of Arctic ice cover for the 2008 to 2009 winter season at the briefing.

6 April 2009
MEDIA ADVISORY: Update on Arctic Sea Ice Conditions
In conjunction with a NASA/NSIDC media teleconference today, NSIDC has issued an update to Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis describing winter sea ice conditions in the Arctic Ocean. To read the full analysis from NSIDC scientists, see http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2009/040609.html
Supporting information for the media briefing is available on the NASA Web site at: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/seaice_status09.html. Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live on the NASA Web site at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio.

April 8, 2009
Media Advisory: Ice Bridge Supporting Wilkins Ice Shelf Collapses
An ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula to Charcot Island has disintegrated. The event continues a series of breakups that began in March 2008 on the ice shelf, and highlights the effect that climate change is having on the region… [etc]

The press, of course, lap up these plot twists like there’s no tomorrow, using them to pack out column inches with stories about how there’s no tomorrow. Take the opening paragraph of the BBC piece:

Arctic ice reached a larger maximum area this winter than in the last few years, scientists say, but the long-term trend still shows it declining.

This is such an utter non-story – amounting to no more than ‘NSIDC have another year’s worth of winter Arctic ice data’ – that the only reason we can see for the BBC giving it the time of day is to guard against the possibility that people start filling their pretty heads with silly notions that the extent of summer Arctic sea ice varies from year to year, and that while it seems to have been reducing a bit over the last few decades, it hardly follows that it spells the end of the world as we know it.

We mentioned recently that climatological natural variation comes in two varieties. To repeat ourselves, there is the type that is ignored by ‘deniers’ asking awkward questions about recent temperature plateaus. And there’s the type that is to be disregarded for the sake of alarmist stories about single, aberrant weather events.

Both scientists and journalists are guilty of these double standards. And in the BBC piece, we have another prime example. While bending over backwards to stress that, due to natural variation, a single data point that is not as ominous as it could have been in an ideal world does not mean there’s nothing to worry about, the BBC is entirely reliant on ignoring that very same natural variation in order write something – anything – about the latest installment from the NSIDC. It regurgitates NSIDC graphs, complete with lines of best fit that reveal the underlying downward trend towards inevitable oblivion, without wondering why scientific predictions from the NSIDC and elsewhere about the future of Arctic ice are spread across a whole continent of ball parks each the size of Wales. (Estimates for the date of an ice-free Arctic summer – an arbitrary milestone that has nonetheless come to be understood as the signal hailing the Horsemen (Norsemen?) of the Arctic Apocalypse – range from 2008 to 2013, through 2030 to 2100 to some time in the next century, or some time after that.)

This NSIDC graph used by the BBC shows winter maximum sea ice extent:

Ignore natural variation, and what remains is a shallow downward trend that looks vaguely scary only because of the scale of the y axis. We’re just surprised that no one has thought to extrapolate it to come up with a date for when there’ll be no Arctic sea ice even in winter. (2320, by our reckoning. That’s got be worth a press release.)

Meanwhile, the x-axis comprises 30 years of satellite data, a period of time that barely even qualifies as a timescale over which changes in climate can be assessed with confidence. According to the UK Met Office:

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) requires the calculation of averages for consecutive periods of 30 years, with the latest covering the 1961-1990 period. However, many WMO members, including the UK, update their averages at the completion of each decade. Thirty years was chosen as a period long enough to eliminate year-to-year variations.

The NSIDC, like the BBC, has its own love-hate relationship with natural variation. Last year, we quoted from a classic NSIDC presser in which, in a single short paragraph comprising three sentences, they managed to both sex up 2008 as a potential record-breaker and warn us off getting over-excited by a single year’s data:

Sea ice extent has fallen below the 2005 minimum, previously the second-lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era. We will know if the 2008 record will also fall in the next several weeks, when the melt season comes to a close. The bottom line, however, is that the strong negative trend in summertime ice extent characterizing the past decade continues.

The NSIDC is happy to provide a running commentary on the monthly ebbs and floes (ho ho) of ice behaviour, while simultaneously maintaining that only the long-term trend is important. It even goes as far as to provide daily pictorial updates of the state of the ice. As the link on the NSIDC homepage puts it:

Read year-round scientific analysis and see daily image updates of Arctic sea ice

We can certainly appreciate that updating the data set regularly is a great service for working scientists, but it is far less obvious how the pictures help anything. It’s a cheap exercise in outreach. Effectively, it just serves to turn esoteric research data into the subject of a salacious rolling news channel. It’s not as if NSIDC are not conscious of the problems involved in disseminating complex science to non-specialist audiences. When, last year, we asked the NSIDC’s Walt Meier why the center chose to present data showing only one of the two measures of Arctic ice cover that they collect (respectively known as ‘extent’ and ‘area’), when the presentation of both would perhaps reflect more realistically the complexity involved in taking such measurements (let alone using them to make predictions,), he told us:

When you’re talking to the public and the press and so forth […] adding ‘area’ into the discussion can cause confusion. So we’ve kept to ‘extent’ to keep things consistent in how we’re reporting things and reporting one parameter instead of two […] We’ve chosen to not include the ‘area’ [data], even though there are interesting things to say about it, just because, for a lot of people, it does tend to muddy the water.

We wonder what could muddy the water of 30-year trends more than making a pictorial feature of daily installments of ice behaviour.

To an extent, the NSIDC’s hand has been forced. The Arctic has proved such fertile ground for alarmist opportunists (especially when terrestrial and orbiting thermometers are failing to provide headlines) that the NSIDC’s little blue lines on graphs are no longer the only game in town. Last year, self-proclaimed Arctic ambassador Lewis Pugh hit the headlines when he set off to canoe to the North Pole to raise awareness of the shrinking summer ice, although he went rather quiet – as did the media – after he failed miserably in his mission, having been blocked by summer ice. The NSIDC is also facing hot competition from the British Catlin Arctic Survey, which employs good old-fashioned Arctic explorers to do, we are told, what satellites cannot, which is to measure the thickness of Arctic sea ice. That’s the same thickness of Arctic sea ice that NSIDC tells us, without qualification, that satellites tell us is declining. No doubt the current state of knowledge regarding ice thickness lies somewhere between the two contrasting pictures painted by NSIDC and Catlin. But that these organisations are prepared to paint such simplistic pictures to raise awareness of their respective missions should itself set alarm bells ringing.

Who knows what twists and turns the NSIDC’s little blue line(s) will take this year? But it will be well worth tuning in to find out. It’s set to be good viewing. And don’t forget the Antarctic, which is now starting to feature in NSIDC press releases again having waited patiently in the wings for several seasons. The Wilkins ice shelf in particular is showing signs of restlesseness, a sub-plot that will no doubt feature more prominently should the Arctic not come up with the goods again.

Finally, as in all the best soap operas, the BBC leaves us with a cliff-hanger, courtesy of NSIDC’s Walt Meier:

NSIDC researchers believe that a warm summer could see a major melt.
“We’re not set up well for summertime,” said Dr Meier. “We’re in a very precarious situation.”

Precarious situation indeed. And not only for the reasons that Meier had in mind. It’s not just Arctic sea ice that’s on the line, but the reputation of a scientific discipline that has got distracted by the need to save us all from our sins. Tune in for the next episode. There might be a crucifixion.

No Fire Without a Smokescreen

In far flung corners of the globe, where tedious matters of grim reality tend to be of greater concern than the theoretical possibility of the ravages of global warming, there seems to be a growing realisation that, to generate interest from the western media in stuff that is actually happening, it’s necessary to frame stories in terms of climatastrophe. The BBC, for example, did not report on the recent wildfires in Nepal while they were actually burning. But given the excuse to rummage through the embers for signs that climate change is real and is happening, they’re right onto it:

Climate change ‘fans Nepal fires’

The forest fires that flared unusually viciously in many of Nepal’s national parks and conserved areas this dry season have left conservationists worrying if climate change played a role.

At least four protected areas were on fire for an unusually long time until just a few days ago.

The BBC’s entire case hangs on comments from two interviewees. First, there’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology chief Nirmal Rajbhandari, who lists a string of undesirable weather events in the region before lumping the wildfires into the mix and blaming it all on global warming:

“Seeing all these changes happening in recent years, we can contend that this dryness that led to so much fire is one of the effects of climate change,” said Mr Rajbhandari.

You can hardly blame Nepalese officials for jumping on the climate change wagon if it’s all that will make the western media prick up their ears. But it’s hard to forgive professional catastrophists WWF, who provide the BBC with its second line of evidence:

Anil Manandhar, head of WWF Nepal, had this to ask: Are we waiting for a bigger disaster to admit that it is climate change?

“The weather pattern has changed, and we know that there are certain impacts of climate change.”

He might have intended his question to be rhetorical, but if sanity is to be maintained, it demands an answer: No. How can the size of a disaster possibly indicative of the strength of its connection to climate change? What we are waiting for is evidence that climate change is causing more frequent and/or more serious disasters. While opportunist NGOs and business interests are happy to push their climate disaster-porn at any opportunity, they do so without a scientific basis. And that is true globally, let alone on the local scales being discussed in the BBC story, as the one scientific expert quoted is only too aware:

However, climate change expert Arun Bhakta Shrestha of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) was cautious about drawing conclusions.

“The prolonged dryness this year, like other extreme events in recent years, could be related to climate change but there is no proper basis to confirm that.

“The reason (why there is no confirmation) is lack of studies, observation and data that could have helped to reach into some conclusion regarding the changes.”

But two against one is plenty for a climate-change scare story.

If the rest of the report is to be believed, forest fires are not uncommon in Nepal at this time of year. But this year, they have been more serious than usual:

Most of the fires come about as a consequence of the “slash and burn” practice that farmers employ for better vegetation and agricultural yields.

But this time the fires remained out of control even in the national parks in the Himalayan region where the slash and burn practice is uncommon.

In some of the protected areas, the fires flared up even after locals and officials tried to put them out for several days.

And Nepal has experienced an unusually dry winter:

For nearly six months, no precipitation has fallen across most of the country – the longest dry spell in recent history, according to meteorologists.

“This winter was exceptionally dry,” says Department of Hydrology and Meteorology chief Nirmal Rajbhandari.

“We have seen winter becoming drier and drier in the last three or four years, but this year has set the record.”

Rivers are running at their lowest, and because most of Nepal’s electricity comes from hydropower, the country has been suffering power cuts up to 20 hours a day.

It can’t come as much of a surprise, even to the BBC, that drier conditions make a landscape more fire-prone. And nowhere a mention of the role of natural variation. But then natural variation comes in two varieties. There is the type that is ignored by ‘deniers’ asking awkward questions about recent temperature plateaus. And there’s the type that is to be disregarded for the sake of alarmist stories about single, aberrant weather events.

Had it not been for recent drizzles, conservationists say some of the national parks would still be on fire.

Drizzles caused by climate change, perhaps?