May, the Farce be With You

We haven’t mentioned Bob May for a while. Here he is, talking to BBC R4’s World at One presenter Martha Kearney today about… oh, you know, everything. [Listen again – UK Only]

MK: The issue of climate change is being addressed tonight by the president of the British Science Association, Lord May. He’s the former president of Britain’s leading science academy, the Royal Society and the former government Chief Scientific Advisor. He’s making his speech at the British Science Festival tonight and takes as his starting point the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. And Lord May, you’re going to outline what you see as a set of interlocking set of problems which in fact threaten our existence on the planet.

BM: Yes. I’m going to begin with the very different world of Darwin’s time, which is exactly coincident with the foundations of the British Association for the Advancement of science. And I’m going to point out that in Darwin’s own time there were lots of problems like for example in the physics of that day, Earth couldn’t have been nearly long enough for the, err, what the geological record tries to tell us. Nearly all those problems have been swept away by advances in science in the subsequent 150 years or so, except for how evolution managed to create and sustain cooperative behaviour in large aggregates of unrelated people. Small when we were hunter-gatherers, small groups we were all, the people in the group were all related. But today we still don’t really properly understand the origins of the stability of the ties that bind us in big societies.

MK: And those ties are vital, you believe, people do need to cooperate when it comes to the problems of tackling climate change, population growth, food and water supplies?

BM: And indeed the two things you’ve just had: those two programmes are beautiful small examples, the one before, immediately preceding a sketch of climate change and before that, legalistic tensions between the interests of the individual and the interests of society. More generally we’ve got a concatenation of problems that we seem to have difficulty focusing on other than one at a time. But they’re all interlinked.

MK: And you…

BM: Half as many again by the middle of the century. Need to feed them. Water supplies. Demand crossing supplies. And climate change.

MK: And you believe that in the past, religion, mythology, the idea of a deity as a punisher was what actually helped bind people together.

BM: Well, there’s a huge academic growth industry in trying, playing artificial little games as metaphors for cooperation, always with the temptation for a seeming advantage of cheating. And what they’re tending to tell us is that carrots are much more effective than sticks. But if you’ve only got carrots, there… there… the benefit of cheating is not suppressed. And what helps most is carrots with a few sticks. A mechanism for punishing the people who don’t pay their dues for the cooperative benefit which they get. And that poses the question… the punisher is often penalised for punishing. How much better to invent a supernatural entity that is all-knowing-all-seeing-all-powerful and arguably there’s quite a lot of speculation that the origins of religion lie as a mechanism with the wish of the deity or pantheon interpreted by a hierarchy… it’s a mechanism for bringing people together to cooperate in the norms of the society under the non… not the… fear, if you like… ummm… of punishment, if not here then in the hereafter.

MK: Well, interesting, but undoubtedly controversial ideas. I’m sure many people of faith will disagree with you. Lord May, thanks very much indeed for joining us.

Wow.

So here’s what we understand from the interview.

In the beginning, there were little groups of hunter-gathering people who didn’t know people from other little groups of hunter gatherers. And we don’t know how these people co-operated, except for being scared by a god. But then a man called Darwin came along and said that the Earth was older than the hunter-gathering god-fearing people said it was. So people stopped being terrified of the god, and therefore stopped co-operating with each other. But now, using special games based on Darwin’s ideas, scientists have worked out that people need to have carrots and sticks to make them co-operate.

In short: No sooner has science proved that religion is nonsense than it proves that we need it after all to save the planet and our own souls. For May, religion is not true, but it is a convenient untruth. He seems to think that religion, the tenets and authority of which science challenged centuries ago, was a good idea because it brought people together so that they obeyed norms. He wants us to believe in a god that he knows doesn’t exist to save us from armageddon, which he knows exists. We need this new religion, because we’re too stupid to behave properly, except through being steered by ‘carrots and sticks’. We’re just a bunch of feckless donkeys.

Is evolutionary theory – the science which played no small part in toppling the illegitimate rule of the church – being used to construct a false religion that coerces us with reward and punishment?

Maybe it’s too soon to say. We’re just a bunch of donkeys, after all.

Meanwhile, perhaps a more simple question to answer concerns Bob May and his ilk. Does he need a religion to create the possibility of a cooperative effort to solve a crisis, or does he need a crisis to create the basis for authority? As we argue often here on Climate Resistance, climate politics is prior to the science. Or perhaps that sort of chicken and egg problem is another one for the evolutionary biologists?

Genetically Modified Climate 'Science'

Someone else who isn’t entirely wrong this week is Lord Bob May of Oxford. It’s quite refreshing to hear the former Royal Society president and government chief-scientific adviser having a go at Big Environment for a change instead of Big Oil:

Parts of the green movement have become hijacked by a political agenda and now operate like multinational corporations, according to two senior scientists and members of the House of Lords.

The peers, who were speaking at an event in parliament on science policy, said they felt that in some areas green campaign groups were a hindrance to environmental causes.

“Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s a political movement,” said Lord May

He’s certainly right that the green movement is a political movement. But it’s an observation from the realm of the startlingly obvious. It’s a movement. Take away the politics and it ceases to exist. May and his fellow peer Lord Krebs seem to be imagining some sort of ideal politics-free… erm… politics.

May [added] that he used to be involved with Greenpeace in the 1970s

What on Earth did they think the green movement was, back in the good-old days, before it got all ‘political’? They don’t say.

May might be a great scientist, but he’s a bad Scientist. As a Scientist – by which we mean, someone who practises Scientism – May is under the impression that his views are merely an extension of ‘the science’ – as if he were the vessel for pure scientific objectivity, and above mere politics. Politics by simultaneous equation. Trouble is, not only are May’s facts often spectacularly wrong, so too is his habit of hiding orthodox environmental politics behind them.

Through his criticism of his fellow Scientists, Greenpeace, May betrays the folly of Scientism. When Scientists disagree, they can only resort to accusing each other of politics. Because politics is what people who are wrong do. After all, you can’t have different views among people who are guided only by the science. And the way you show people are guilty of politics is to show they’ve got their facts wrong. Greenpeace went wrong, it seems, when they let their politics get in the way of May’s version of the facts.

May also criticised green groups who campaign against initiatives such as wind farms and the Severn tidal barrage scheme, while also proclaiming the need to tackle climate change. He said such groups were “failing to recognise the landscape is human-created”.

He might be right that greens harbour an aversion to anything ‘unnatural’. But he is wrong to think that, to see the light over alternative energy, they just need a few facts pointing out to them. After all, if the landscape is human-created, what could be wrong with a human-created atmosphere?

Moreover, the bulk of the opposition to alternative energy comes not from green groups, but from run-of-the-mill objections that just happen to make use of the very environmental language in currency – ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘sustainability’ – that May himself has been promoting. This language has, as we have pointed out here on Climate Resistance, been used to reorganise many and varied aspects of public life. Local government services and plans have all been adjusted to meet the demands of ‘sustainability’ and climate change anxiety. Property developers have painted themselves green. What’s left of British industry has been painted green. So it should be no surprise then that the objections to them are also framed in the same terms. They aren’t green enough. They aren’t sustainable. They will damage fragile ecosystems.

May complains that Greenpeace should be more honest about their political agenda:

“I wish they would wear the uniform of the army they are fighting [under],” said May

But May himself wears several layers of different uniform underneath his tightly-buttoned ‘senior-scientist’ regalia. As self-appointed custodian of the facts, May demands respect for them, and uses them as a stick to beat down insubordination, within and without the ranks, as this interview revealed:

We have to confront this threat,’ says May. ‘Unfortunately the media all too often does this in a way that relegates the most important issue facing our species as if it was a soccer match between two competing sides of equal strength. It’s not. If you want to compare it [the debate over the existence of global warming] to a football match, it is more like Manchester United taking on three primary school children. It is as ridiculous as that.

On one hand, you have the entire scientific community and on the other you have a handful of people, half of them crackpots. Nevertheless, this is still presented as an unresolved battle. That is simply not true. It has been resolved. Only the details of climatic change’s impact have still to be worked out.’

May has lost count of the players in his war/football fantasy. This isn’t a game of two sides, because, for a long time, May has been fighting his own war with deeper Greens. The battle line was drawn across England’s fields – not football fields, but fields where genetically modified crops were being trialled and trashed.

Before his stint as President of the Royal Society, May was appointed by the UK government to lead an investigation into the safety of GM food. But, according to the Guardian, he was also…

… being paid by a leading GM company, it emerged last night.

Bob May and Alan Dewar of the Institute of Arable Crops Research, an organisation subsidised by the government, were appointed in June to help lead a team of “world-class scientists” to look at the potential adverse impacts of the farm trials.

…Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace called for the scientists’ resignation and the winding up of the farm-scale trials, several of which have been partly destroyed by anti-GM activists and one of which was abandoned by the farmer.

Things got worse for May when scientists broke ranks:

… the British Medical Association (BMA) announced it believed gene foods were a potential danger to health, particularly those involving the use of antibiotic-resistant genes. ‘On the basis of no evidence any actual harm,’ as New Scientist noted, the BMA then called for a ban on such crops because they could increase antibiotic resistance in humans.

It was this notion that began Bob May’s lachrymous uncertainties. ‘Christ, we have rising antibiotic resistance because the bloody members of the BMA have been oversubcribing penicillin for every damn illness you can think of. It’s got nothing to do with GM food.’

This was a PR disaster, exacerbated by May’s anger and impatience.

In vain, do scientists such as Sir Robert point out that modified crops actually reduce [pesticide] use. ‘It is simple common sense. Modified seeds cost more than normal seeds. So why the fuck would farmers want to have them if they also used up more pesticides which also cost money?’

He had tried to sell the potential of GM positively, but failed comprehensively, telling MPs in 1999 that:

there are real social and environmental choices to be made… They are not about safety as such, but about much larger questions of what kind of world we want to live in…. There is a huge potential market for new GM ‘agrifood’ in Europe.

This kind of world, argued George Monbiot, was one in which scientists were instrumental in an an ‘economic war against the poor’ – good science wasn’t necessarily ‘good’.

The physics labs in which some of the best scientific brains in Britain design grenades which maim without killing, or bombs which destroy people but not the infrastructure, practice “good” science, subjected to peer review. They are also saturated with values. They place a higher value on their research grants than on the lives with which they toy. Precisely the same approach appears to govern many of the nation’s biology labs.

For the war now being waged across the planet is an economic one, as big corporations attempt to seize the resources upon which some of the poorest people on earth depend. And many of the best biologists in Britain are fighting on the wrong side.

But Monbiot’s distance from Scientism diminished substantially over the next decade, as Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill noted last year:

Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason, a ‘defender of truth’ no less, who is praised on the dust-jacket of his latest book for possessing a ‘dazzling command of science’ (only by Naomi Klein, admittedly, but still).

May lost the battle over GM crops. But he learned a valuable lesson. The potential benefits that science offered weren’t persuasive in the face of the fear that the environmental movement was capable of generating. It was too easy to turn any argument about the potential of science into an argument that favoured business interests. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Science would assert its influence, not by constructing positive visions of the future, but by selling itself as the only insurance policy against certain doom. ‘The kind of world we want to live in’ ceased to be a matter of choice, or even about ‘safety as such’. There was now only one course – survival, and its terms were to be dictated by science. Monbiot and May seemed to agree.

Now, of course, even Greenpeace are likely to cite Bob May’s views on the climate debate:

Last year the UK’s prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, wrote to Exxon asking them to stop funding the groups who were “misinforming the public about the science of climate change”. Exxon indicated to the Royal Society that they had – and they would. In February this year Exxon did a big public relations round of the media, saying it had been “misunderstood” on climate change and gave the clear indication that it had dropped its funding of the climate sceptic industry.

And more curiously, May uses the very same argument about industry funding that Greenpeace was throwing at him in the late 1990s, citing their efforts to ‘expose Exxon’. Greenpeace quotes May quoting Greenpeace on Exxon.

The scientific establishment and grubby eco-warriors converged, speaking each others’ language: science gave plausibility to the environmental movement’s darkest fantasies, and the environmentalists’ nightmares gave science a legitimising raison d’etre. But as May’s confusion about which army’s colours Greenpeace are wearing reveal, the convenience of this entente is not lasting. The side/football team/army that May found himself on is itself at least two, with different interests, and different ambitions that no longer appear to be mutually expedient.

Catastrophism is not the only argumentative tack that Bob May, and the Royal Society in general, have borrowed from the greens. In the days of the GM Wars, when environmental groups were hailing Arpad Pusztai’s infamous study on toxic potatoes as proof that GM food was harmful to health, the Royal Society, under May’s leadership, was bending over backwards to dismiss it as a single, unreplicated piece of evidence. And it was. But ten years later, in his desperation to drive home the prospect of climate catastrophe to unbelievers, he cites single, unrepresentative, worst-case studies with abandon – re-framing them along the way in order to remove any suggestion that they might not be the last word on the matter. In fact, he cites with abandon Lord Stern citing with abandon a single, unrepresentative, worst-case study of climate-change threats to biodiversity. No, worse, he mis-cites Stern with abandon – surreptitiously and wholly dishonestly chopping the middle out of the quoted section to achieve the full effect.

The shifting positions of scientists and pressure groups in environmental debates is illustrated further by comments by May and Krebs in the parliamentary event we started with. Krebs, for example, is happy to denigrate Greenpeace as scaremongers:

Lord Krebs, the former chairman of the Food Standards Agency and current principal of Jesus College Oxford also criticised Greenpeace, saying that it had been set up to peddle fear on environmental issues. “Greenpeace is a multinational corporation just like Monsanto or Tesco. They have very effective marketing departments… Their product is worry because worry is what recruits members,” he said.

But some scaremongering is more equal than others:

He added that in some areas, such as warning about the effects of climate change, such an approach was justified, but that Greenpeace sometimes chose the wrong issues – for example, nuclear power and GM crops.

May echoes these sentiments:

May said parliamentarians had not done enough to prepare the public for the effect climate change would have on their lives in terms of efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate changes.

“I think there has been a problem of communication,” he said. “For some, I think it’s the desire not to confront the issue.” But, he said, the smoking ban had showed, for example, that public attitudes could change rapidly.

The smoking ban did not change attitudes. All it did was to prevent the expression of attitudes – there is no choice. It hasn’t made people less tolerant of smoking, it’s just made smoking illegal in public spaces. It is a deeply confused lawmaker who cannot tell the difference between a law and an attitude.

This confusion represents the heart of the problem of May’s scientism. If you merely view ‘attitudes’ as equivalent to holding so many wrong or right ‘facts’, then it stands to reason that winning the argument consists of no more than barking right facts at the wrong. This harks back to a prehistoric view of science communication that the Royal Society itself has played no small part in dispelling. It is a return to the deficit model, whereby the unenlightened masses just need to know more about the science in order to come to the ‘correct’ conclusions. The last couple of decades have seen a shift away from this unidirectional Public Understanding of Science to a more conversational Public Engagement with Science model. And yet it is striking that, while the Royal Society has embraced public engagement exercises over nanotechnology and, to an extent, genetic modification (although only after the horse had bolted), when it comes to climate change, conversations are conspicuous by their absence. The only conversations that the Royal Society takes part in on climate change are with those who already agree. It’s little surprise that there has been no formal attempt to engage the public in conversation when the majority of the electorate remain unconvinced by climate change rhetoric.

May attempts to side-step this particular pitfall by claiming that wrong facts about climate change are only held because they were put there by the wrong people – conspiracies of ‘an active and well-funded “denial lobby”‘, in May’s words.

‘Politics’ is thus reduced to the expression of wrong ‘facts’, resulting in the highly polarised battle between armies – or football teams – representing true (science) and false (politics). The whole business of politics is therefore a deviation from ‘the right facts’. Concomitant with such scientism is the view that being right is equivalent to being legitimate: the ‘consensus’/football team/truth-army legitimises the reorganisation of the world according to the demands of the environmentalists that are consistent with the Scientists’ own ambitions. What makes this necessary are the dire consequences of climate change, as dictated by ‘climate science’

Whatever the scientific truth of the claim, scientism’s argument amounts to an organising principle, the same as any other political ideology. Any normative proposition that demands that we change our lives must be treated as any other. That is to say, it needs to win its way to influence by persuasive and careful argument, and must endure hostile criticism. But that is not how the environmental movement has won its influence. Instead, men like May have captured the catastrophic drama that has been generated by the likes of Greenpeace and used it to legitimise new international and national political institutions and legal frameworks. Where political philosophies used to gain momentum – movement – through capturing the public’s imagination, and would assert ideas through such weight of numbers, today’s political players legitimise themselves with terrifying images.

Bob May might be unaware of his own contributions to the politicisation of science, but it is not lost on Patrick Moore, Director of Greenpeace International for seven years during the 1970s, the period of Bob May’s involvement with the group:

“It appears to be the policy of the Royal Society to stifle dissent and silence anyone who may have doubts about the connection between global warming and human activity,” said Dr. Moore, Chairman and Chief Scientist of Vancouver, Canada-based Greenspirit Strategies Ltd.

“That kind of repression seems more suited to the Inquisition than to a modern, respected scientific body,” said Moore.

May would no doubt argue that these shifting allegiances reflect no more than the ‘truth’ of ‘the science’ on offer from Greenpeace et al regarding these various areas.

Indeed, May’s erstwhile right-hand-man Bob Ward has argued just that:

during my early days at the Royal Society in 1999, the Society became involved in a major debate over GM foodstuffs, when it challenged a number of statements about their safety that were based on studies that had not been submitted to peer-reviewed journals. This made the Society the subject of much criticism from NGOs such as Greenpeace, which I think demonstrates that the Society is not partisan to particular interest groups.

That the Royal Society doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with businesses and Greenpeace may make it hard to identify the Royal Society’s sympathy with an existing interest group. But that doesn’t mean that interests and politics aren’t operating beneath the crusader-for-science costume. Even having the best scientific facts doesn’t guarantee the stainless moral fibre of their possessor. The curious thing about the last few decades’ eco-wars has been the way that all sides have attempted to portray themselves as being in possession of the best, least interested facts, and that the opposing viewpoints are tainted – perverted, even – by financial and political interest. But paradoxically, this has happened in an era characterised by a dearth of influence by political perspectives in debate. Since the late eighties, for example, it has been hard to identify the functioning of Left or Right arguments operating in the public sphere that owe anything to their traditions. Where once, such movements would have achieved prominence for their ideas precisely because they were political, and because they represented interests, today’s movements instead appeal to ‘science’ for legitimacy.

But as the GM wars showed, science hasn’t solved anything: the debate continues its descent. The arguments May produces, like Frankenstein’s own monster, escape his control. The interminable issue of funding, rather than demonstrating the purity of scientific objectivity, demonstrates the impossibility of such a perspective ever being achieved – even Lord May is ‘industry funded’. Scientific terminology – ‘sustainability’, ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’ – escape scientific context, to allow anyone to speculate what might happen ‘if trends continue’. The notion of ‘consensus’ becomes detached from its object, and allows anyone with a broadly sympathetic agenda to cite facts about opinion about facts as evidence of facts themselves.

This is no reflection on the usefulness of science itself. But that usefulness diminishes when it is puffed up for political purposes – ultimately to fill the void left by politics itself.

So, May might be giving a few sections of the green movement a bit of stick, but when it comes down to it, that Greenpeace et al have got their facts wrong has little to do with it. He pounces on them when their interests and politics diverge from his own. Which is why environmentalists can rest assured that they can keep on making up the facts about the climatastrophe as they go along without incurring the wrath of May or the Royal Society. In fact, the Royal Society gives out prizes for that sort of thing.

May has lost one battle against the forces of unreason. He doesn’t want to lose another one. He’s going to win on climate change, even if he has to lower himself and scientific institutions to the level of Greenpeace to do so. But in today’s world, neither are causes; they are both just symptoms.

activism.plc@gov.ac.uk

At the risk of getting all Exxon-Secrets ‘on yo asses’… Thanks to the reader who let us know about Bob Ward‘s latest career move. Ward, if you remember, left his post of director of communications at the Royal Society to join global risk analysis firm RMS as Director of Global Science Networks. It was a perfectly natural progression that allowed him to continue both his pseudo-scientific catastrophe-mongering and his crusade against Exxon and Martin Durkin. Which he did.

Ward now pops up at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, where he has taken on the post of Policy and Communications Director. The Grantham is chaired by Professor Lord Sir Nicholas Stern of Brentford, author of a rather influential report on the economics of climate change, and who stands to profit admirably from institutional environmentalism via his carbon credit reference agency. It is no surprise that Ward and Sir Nicholas find themselves in the same company department, given their shared interests. Stern is also Chair of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP), which is funded by the UK government’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and which acknowledges that ‘Generous support for the Centre’s work is also provided by Munich Re’. Munich Re is the insurance giant that claims to know what the IPCC does not when it comes to the reality of climate change in the present.

Glancing down the profiles of Grantham’s management team, we spot another corporate Green to have found a new home among academic foliage. The last time we looked, Sam Fankhauser was Managing Director of IDEAcarbon:

IDEAcarbon is an independent and professional provider of ratings, research and strategic advice on carbon finance. Our services are designed to provide leading financial institutions, corporations, governments, traders and developers with unbiased intelligence and analysis of the factors that affect the pricing of carbon market assets.

IDEAcarbon’s parent company is IDEAglobal, where Stern is Vice President.

Fankhauser doubles up as a member of the Climate Change Committee, the ‘independent’ body set up by the UK government to advise the UK government on climate policies.

The CCC is chaired by Lord Adair Turner of Ecchinswell, a man whose CV includes stints of environmental activism as a trustee for WWF and membership of the Advisory Board of Climate Change Capital, a firm offering services as an ‘investment manager and advisor specialising in the opportunities created by the transition to the low carbon economy’.

After all this, we were slightly disappointed to gather that the Grantham Research Institute is not named after the birthplace of green pioneer Margaret Thatcher. That it’s named in honour of multi-millionaire sponsors Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham, whose Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment also supports such green multi-nationals as GreenpeaceOxfamWWF and the Union of Concerned Scientists, is no less appropriate, however.

Grantham’s raison d’être is, according to its Chair:

Professor Stern said: ’As scientists continue to play their role in analysing the causes and effects of climate change, it is crucial that social scientists take a lead in the building of policy. The Grantham Institute will produce high-quality, policy-relevant research, alongside a range of outputs designed to support policy development, raise public awareness and contribute to private-sector strategy formation.’

Climate Resistance would not stoop to suggest that the corporate and ideological interests of the Grantham Research Institute’s staff could conceivably influence the direction or quality of its research output.

In fact, it’s worth re-stating that we wouldn’t make so much of the financial interests of these folk were it not for the fact that Bob Ward and his cronies make so much about links with dirty oil money, as exemplified by Ward’s former boss at the Royal Society, Bob May, writing in the TLS:

Despite the growing weight of evidence of climate change, along with growing awareness of the manifold adverse consequences, 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. […] Whoever got things started, this is a ball which ExxonMobile picked up and ran with, shuttling lobbyists in and out of the White House as it did so. Following earlier talks and seeking to exemplify its centuries-old motto – Nullius in Verba (which roughly translates as “respect the facts”) – the Royal Society recently and unprecedentedly wrote to ExxonMobile, complaining about its funding for “organisations that have been misinforming the public about the science of climate change”, and more generally for promoting inaccurate and misleading views – specifically that scientists do not agree about the influence of human activity on rising temperatures.

Likewise, we would be less interested in such dodgy dealings if it weren’t for the mainstream media’s tendency to decry Exxon funding as corrupting of the scientific method while deeming Munich Re’s pronouncements – let alone the pronouncements of those they sponsor – as above scrutiny. It’s also worth re-stating at this point that fear is to the insurance industry what oil is to Exxon.

The ESRC’s CCCEP is worthy of further comment. According to its home page:

Human-induced climate change could have enormous impacts on economies and societies if we persist with ‘business as usual’. This is the consensus view of climate scientists and one with which economists are increasingly finding agreement (eg The Stern Review). It is much less certain, however, that our economic, social and political systems can respond to the challenge. Will public, private and civic actors take action to create low-carbon economies? What emission reduction strategies will be efficient, equitable and acceptable? How much should we invest, and when, on measures to reduce vulnerability to climate change? Who will bear the costs and enjoy the benefits? […] The Centre is chaired by Professor Lord Stern of Brentford

So, Lord Professor Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change is somehow representative of the ‘scientific consensus’, and he shall, therefore, chair the ESRC’s climate change body.

There was a time when the social sciences felt it necessary to scrutinise the natural sciences, on the basis that scientists weren’t quite as objective as they liked to think they were. They had a point, even if the scientists were probably more objective than the sociologists thought they were. It was a good fight. Now, however, the starting point of centrally-funded social science is that it accepts unconditionally that not only is there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but there is an economic one, too. Aren’t new-fangled scientific practices like consensuses and peudo-scientific creations like ‘sustainability’ precisely what the social sciences should be scrutinising?

The CCCEP assumes from the outset that it follows necessarily that something must be done – and, indeed, that is the duty of each of us to do something. From its mission statement:

Climate change and its potential impacts are increasingly accepted, but economic, social and political systems have been slow to respond. There is a clear and urgent need to speed up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to unavoidable climate change.

The Centre’s mission is to respond to this need by advancing public and private action on climate change through innovative, rigorous research.

This is not sociology as the study of social institutions. It is sociology as government department, scholarly discipline and activist group all rolled into one. As if the Science Wars never happened, ‘climate science’ is free once again to speak ‘Truth to Power’ unfettered. Except that now it is aided and abetted by those who would be scrutinising it were it not for the fact that sociology has lost any sense of mission, just as political parties, the media, environmentalist activists and a host of scholarly disciplines attempting to justify themselves in terms of ‘relevance’ have lost sense of their mission.

The environmental orthodoxy is a tangled web of corporate interests, policy-makers, -movers and -shakers, academics, NGO’s and activists – all pushing in the same direction. Which would be just fine if the idea had been tested democratically. But it hasn’t. We’ve said it many times… environmentalism has not risen to prominence through its own energies: it has not developed from a mass movement; it isn’t representative of popular interests. It is useful only to various organisations that have otherwise struggled to justify themselves over the last few decades. The political parties have bought it. Various ‘radical’ organisations have bought it. Large sections of the media have bought it. Academic departments and funding agencies have bought it. Little wonder that corporate interests have been able to jump upon the bandwagon and play their hearts out for personal financial gain.

Forget speaking ‘Truth to Power’. Today it’s all about speaking ‘Official Truth™ for Official Power©’.

80% and the Climate Change Aristocracy

The Independent newspaper announced yesterday that

The UK should cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by mid-century, the Government’s climate change committee recommended today.

The committee said a more stringent target than the 60 per cent cut currently in the Climate Change Bill was needed, because new information suggested the dangers of global warming were greater than previously thought.

The dangers of climate change were worse than previously thought? What possible worse scenario could there be, than the barrage of catastrophic visions we have been subjected to by activists, politicians, and the media, over the last few years?

When we started this blog in April 2007, we said:

Because of a perception that the public mood demands action to mitigate climate change, the UK government has used the IPCC findings to justify committing the country to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Like much environmental policy, this has gone largely unchallenged by opposition parties.

Nobody in UK politics was challenging the often very tenuous claims that climate change would mean catastrophe. And even fewer people were challenging the even less credible idea that the only way to prevent catastrophe was to prevent CO2 emissions. And worst of all, everybody involved in UK politics seemed to be using the looming catastrophe to demand that people use less, expect less, and obey the tenets of environmentalism. There being no challenge to this orthodoxy, and no questions asked about either its effectiveness or its consequences, how could the process of the greening of the UK be seen as democratic?

In March last year, the government published a Draft Climate Change Bill, proposing that the UK reduces its CO2 emissions by 2050. This lead to criticism that it hadn’t gone far enough. The Conservatives said they would reduce emissions by 80%, and the Liberals 100% by 2050. The Government wasn’t taking the threat of climate change seriously enough, they said, and the 60% figure proved it. This shows that there is only one way that the politicians in the UK can respond to the perception of a crisis; they have to make it worse, and worse, and worse, and promise that they are the only party that can hope to solve this terrible mess, and that the other parties are so incompetent, that only a terrible catastrophe can follow their inevitable failure.

Following this game of politics-by-numbers, on October 2007, the Environment Secretary announced changes to the bill:

The changes to the draft Bill, set out in a Command Paper entitled ‘Taking Forward the UK Climate Change Bill’ published today, include:

  • As announced by the Prime Minister in September, asking the Committee on Climate Change to report on whether the Government’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 60 percent by 2050 should be strengthened further;
  • Asking the Committee to look at the implications of including other greenhouse gases and emissions from international aviation and shipping in theUK’s targets as part of this review;
  • Strengthening the role and responsibilities of the Committee on Climate Change, including by requiring the Government to seek the Committee’s advice before amending the 2020 or 2050 targets in the Bill;
  • Strengthening the Committee’s independence from Government, by confirming that it will appoint its own chief executive and staff, and increasing its analytical resources;

It would no longer be the responsibility of politicians to determine the level of CO2 emissions that the UK would allow. It would instead be determined by an expert committee. This would end the silly squabbling between parties about which percentage cut in CO2 best reflected the ‘scientific’ advice. But it also removes the possibility that we or you might influence the environmental policies of the UK through the democratic process. As we’ve pointed out many times before, environmentalism is a political idea; it aims to reorganise society around its values and ethics. Yet this ideology has never been tested democratically. It hasn’t won any seats in the UK parliament, yet almost the entire house of commons has embraced environmentalism. Its as though, one morning, the House of Commons turned up for a debate, not as the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the independents, but as members of the Green Party. This is a failure of UK politics and democracy.

Today, as the changes to the Draft bill stipulated, Lord Adair Turner of Ecchinswell, the chair of the committee, wrote to the Environment secretary that, as the Independent reported, ‘The UK should cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by mid-century’. What a surprise. So what lay behind the decision to increase the UK’s target from 60% to 80%? The letter said:

The Committee looked at whether the UK’s current target for a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 was likely to be sufficient given what we know about the latest developments in climate science. This target was recommended in the report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) published in 2000. Since the report, however, new information has become available. This suggests that the dangers of significant climate change are greater than previously assessed which argues for larger global, and thus UK, reductions.

This gives the impression that the scientific basis of the bill was the 2000 Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution(RCEP). But curiously, there is no mention of the RCEP in the March Draft Climate Change Bill. The report is, as you’d expect it to be, based principally on IPCC AR4, and the Stern report. The figure of 60%, it seems, stems from a 2003 White Paper.

The Government would therefore like to enshrine the commitments in the Energy White Paper 2003 to reduce CO2 emissions by 60% on 1990 levels by 2050; and to achieve “real progress” by 2020 (which would equate to reductions of 26-32%) towards the long-term goal within a new legal carbon management framework (outlined in Section 5).

This White Paper does mention the RCEP2000 report.

We therefore accept the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s (RCEP’s) recommendation that the UK should put itself on a path towards a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of some 60% from current levels by about 2050.

The October ’07, amendments to the bill called Taking Forward the UK Climate Change Bill gave the CCC its responsibilities to check the 60% figure:

Bearing in mind however the weight of scientific evidence before the Committee that a target of more than 60% is likely to be necessary, we believe that as soon as possible after it is established, the Committee on Climate Change should review the most recent scientific research available and consider to what extent the target should be higher than 60%, with a view to making recommendations on the appropriate amendment to the long term target.

The very next paragraph mentions the RCEP:

The figure of 60% was arrived at by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in 2000, following extensive research and analysis. We recognise the significant recent advances in scientific understanding, but also note that no comparable crosscutting research and analysis has been done since the RCEP report and there is no broad consensus around what the figure should be, if it is not 60%.

If the figure of 60% was based on the 2000 RCEP report, why was it not mentioned in the March Draft Bill? And if there has been no process since 2000 to determine what the level of CO2 emissions reduction should be, how can any figure be determined as appropriate?

It is clear that the October ’07 document created an opportunity for the CCC to reject 60% in favour of 80%. It might as well have said ‘the figure of 60% has given the opposition an opportunity to embarrass us, therefore, we have set up the CCC to report back in one year that the figure ought to be 80%’.

Last month, Lord Adair Turner was appointed chair of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the body which regulates the financial sector. It seems that the world’s problems are on his shoulders. But wouldn’t it be better to make the economic and ecological crises that we face the subject of political debate, rather than appoint people like Turner to make ‘expert’ decisions. After all, the FSA was unable to prevent today’s current economic problems from manifesting.

It is also interesting to note that Turner was until recently, a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and a member of the Advisory Board of Climate Change Capital, a firm offering services as an ‘investment manager and advisor specialising in the opportunities created by the transition to the low carbon economy’. As a member of the Advisory Board, he ‘assist[ed] senior management to develop the group’s medium-term strategy, extend the company’s network and evaluate opportunities’.

Had Turner emerged from an advisory role at a company lacking such spotless ethical credentials – let’s say, for example, one such as Exxonmobil – and had he suggested that 60% was a bit too strong a figure, and perhaps 40% was a better one, would there ever be an end to claims that this process was corrupt and undemocratic?

Yet here we see a man, with associations to commercial interests in the implementation of environmental policy (contrast with the speculation that surrounds sceptics who have worked with the oil industry), with a clear commitment to the environmental ethics espoused WWF, who is responsible for determining the UK’s policy over the next 45 years.

Working alongside Lord Turner on the CCC are:

Sir Brian Hoskins – a dynamical meteorologist and climatologist at the University of Reading and Imperial College London. He worked on the Stern review of climate change, and Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, which aims ‘To be a world-leading institute generating and communicating the highest quality research on climate-driven change and translating this into sustainable technological, political and socio-economic responses’. 

Lord Robert May – erstwhile President of the Royal Society, and a climate change alarmist second to none. As we have reported many times, Lord May’s involvement in the climate change debate has generated more heat than light.

Professor Jim Skea – Research Director at the UK Energy Research Centre and former Director at the Policy Studies Institute and the Economic and Social Research Council Global Environmental Change Programme, and contributor to the Stern Review.

Dr Samuel Fankhauser a visiting fellow in climate change economics at LSE, and Managing Director of IDEAcarbon, the parent company of which Sir Nicholas Stern is Vice-Chairman, and ‘an independent and professional provider of ratings, research and strategic advice on carbon finance. Our services are designed to provide leading financial institutions, corporations, governments, traders and developers with unbiased intelligence and analysis of the factors that affect the pricing of carbon market assets.’

Professor Michael Grubb – Chief Economist at the Carbon Trust, a Government-funded private company, and a Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge.

Amongst these men are very clear interests in climate change policy, with lots to gain, both professionally, and economically from climate change policies. In other words, just as the political process failed to subject environmental ideas to scrutiny, so too does the outsourced task of determining our future.

This is not to say there is a conspiracy here, nor that this is corrupt. Yet having such an interested old boys club is clearly corrupting of the process by which policies that affect all our lives are determined. Lord May has made a hell of a lot of noise in recent times about the existence of a ‘well funded denial machine’ doing the work of the oil industry. Yet as we have shown, this ‘well funded’ effort is the beneficiary of a tiny fraction of the quantity of cash available to, for example, the Carbon Trust (£70+ million / year), whose aim is ‘to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy by working with organisations to reduce carbon emissions and develop commercial low carbon technologies’. And it is likely to be a lot less than the returns seen by IDEAcarbon and Climate Change Capital, when their services are made more profitable by climate change policies.

The problem is simply that there is no opposition allowed into this process, either to question the science, or the way the science informs the policy decision, nor to ask whether emissions reductions is the best solution in terms of the interests of the UK population, or throughout the world. Worst still, the shrill complaints made about people who challenge climate orthodoxy by Bob May effectively close down any possibility of debate. Indeed, on at least one occasion, we have found Bob May making stuff up about ‘deniers’. No, let’s call it what it is… Bob May is a liar. And he lies – while accusing others of lies, and conspiring – seemingly in order to secure his position in what is clearly a climate change aristocracy, not only in name.

So what is behind the decision made by the group that 80% is the right target? What ‘new information has become available’ which makes ‘the dangers of significant climate change greater than previously assessed’?

The CCC’s letter to the Environment Secretary says,

Firstly, we know more about how rising temperatures will reduce the effectiveness of carbon sinks: the science now tells us that for any given level of emissions, concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and temperatures will increase by more than the RCEP report anticipated.

The principal basis of climate change alarmism has always been that positive feedback mechanisms will produce ‘runaway climate change’. As the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), to which the UK is committed, says, lack of understanding should not be used as a reason not to act. This embodiment of the precautionary principal means that, regardless of the state of knowledge in an area of climate science, the response is the same. It makes no difference how much is understood. The effect of new research emerging since the 2000 RCEP recommendation therefore ought to make no difference to policy. What matters is the ‘what if…’, not the ‘what’.

Pedantry aside, it is hard to work out what this ‘new understanding’ is, and what its effect on the outcome of global warming actually is. No new research is cited. Although we know more about carbon sinks, maybe, that they will respond to increases in global temperature in a way which is worse than previously thought should only be understood to inform a policy decision in the context of the total effect of climate change and society’s vulnerability to it.

The chapter relating to global temperature and sinks in the RCEP 2000 report uses a graph to consider the effect of CO2 on the atmosphere, under several different scenarios relating to CO2 emissions policies (left figure). The IPCC do the same thing in their Assessment Reports, the most recent (AR4, 2007) is also shown below, for comparison (right).

As the graphs show, if the RCEP 2000 report reflected the best available knowledge, then the understanding which has emerged since then does not, as has been reported, indicate that the situation is ‘worse than previously thought’. In fact, the IPCC 2007 graphic is far more optimistic than RCEP2000. So what basis is there for extending the 60% figure?

Secondly, unlike the authors of the RCEP report we had the benefit of models that included the warming effects of gases other than CO2. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) shows that, for the stabilisation level outlined by RCEP, non-CO2 gases will increase the equivalent CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by approximately 100ppm.

This is not true. The RCEP report said ‘The concentration of methane has also been increased by human activities, more than doubling over the last 200 years. It is thought to contribute about one-fifth of the current enhancement in the greenhouse effect.’ This claim was cited to
IPCC (1996b) The Science of Climate Change 1995. Summary for Policymakers, page 8. Curiously, the SPM referred has only 5 pages, as far as we can tell, so it is hard to establish what the basis was.

Whatever it was, clearly methane at least was part of the RCEP’s calculations, and the IPCC AR4 gives a good indication that in 2000, we had a fairly good understanding of the contribution other gasses make to global warming. The IPCC’s 1995 report (SAR) gives methane (CH4) a 100 year ‘global warming potential’ (GWP ) figure of 21 (relative to carbon dioxide = 1). The 2007 report gives CH4 a global warming potential of 25. Not a massive increase, especially as the SAR gave Nitrous Oxide a GWP of 310, downgraded in 2007 to 298. As the basis for RCEP, IPCC SAR includes nearly all the greenhouse gasses included in AR4, and upgrades some, and downgrades others.

But this is pretty meaningless anyway. A DEFRA report published earlier this year showed that by 2006, ‘Methane emissions, excluding those from natural sources, were 53 per cent below 1990 levels’ and that ‘Nitrous oxide emissions fell by 40 per cent between 1990 and 2006.’

The UK clearly has reduced its CH4 and N2O levels substantially. What is more, the claim that new evidence has emerged with respect to the global warming potential of other greenhouses gasses is barely credible. The RCEP had access to the data relating to non-CO2 GHG’s GWP in 2000, which is almost identical to today’s. Therefore, there is no good reason to make this ‘new information’ the basis for increasing the target to 80%.

Thirdly, the reduction in the summer Arctic sea ice in recent years has been greater than predicted by any of the models. Also the summer melt of the Greenland ice sheet has accelerated. These observations have led to new concerns about the pace of global warming, particularly as it affects the Arctic and possible rates of sea level rise.

Presumably, this statement is based on the single paper published last year by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). And let’s remember that such evidence does not bolster the claim that global warming is worse than previously thought, just that Arctic summer ice melt has been greater than the models predicted. If the models used to base policy on are wrong, then they are just wrong, and no further conclusion can be safely drawn. Wrong is wrong. It does not mean that things are ‘worse’ than expected’, it just means that the expectations and assumptions were wrong. And they still are wrong. Furthermore, there are only 30 years worth of data on which to base these models, from an area which is necessarily one of the most changeable and dynamic regions on earth. We know for example, that parts of the Arctic in the early C20th saw rates of change not dissimilar to, and possibly greater than today’s.

This argument clearly also rests on the news story of the year. But as the NSIDC told us, the record low 2007 ice extent was not the result of global warming, but principally a ‘perfect storm’, as part of natural variation. In much the same way, the unusually hot 1998 has not been attributed by scientists to anthropogenic climate change, but to natural variation. This is the same natural variation which was used by the Hadley Centre to explain its failure to accurately predict the temperatures of 2007, and the cold weather which has followed the La Nina event.

The ‘possible rate of sea level rise’ referred to has been substantially reduced by the IPCC from their previous estimates, and the range between upper and lower estimates narrowed. This has caused something of a split in the climate change community, with the increasingly lunatic James Hansen claiming that the IPCC estimate is dangerously conservative. This surely makes Hansen as remote from the ‘consensus’ as any ‘denier’, yet he is still celebrated by environmental activists, and we can assume, the CCC.

Again, the reasons given by the CCC for increasing the target to 80% lack substance.

Fourthly, it is now realised that atmospheric pollution has probably masked some of the greenhouse gas warming that would have occurred. As air quality improvements continue to be achieved, so even more warming can be expected.

We look forward to seeing the evidence for this statement presented in the report proper. It was only this year, for example, that a major and well-publicised (albeit for the wrong reasons) study found that components of atmospheric pollution are responsible for up to 60% as much warming compared to CO2. That’s not to say that other components (eg, sulphates) don’t have a cooling effect – they do – but the net effect of all these pollutants remains very poorly understood.

Fifthly, there is now a greater understanding of the range of potential climate change impacts, their regional variation and the possibility of abrupt or irreversible changes. These analyses also suggest greater damages once temperature increases become significant.

Ah yes, it’s always a good idea to squeeze ‘abrupt and irreversible’ into alarmist reports on climate change. But, as we’ve shown before, the phrase’s currency owes more to silly newspaper articles about AR4 than it does to AR4 itself.

Finally, latest global emission trends are higher than those anticipated in most IPCC scenarios, largely because of higher economic growth and a shift towards more carbon intensive sources of energy.

Higher economic growth? How can a man who chairs the Financial Services Authority claim that we are experiencing ‘higher economic growth’? Secondly, ‘higher economic growth’ than anticipated means greater resilience to climate change, as is shown by the difference in outcomes between ‘natural’ disasters experienced in the industrialised world, and those in the developing world. Thirdly, a ‘shift towards more carbon intensive sources of energy’ means not burning wood, and dung, which contribute to deforestation and poor health. In other words, it represents progress. As a reason for increasing the UK’s cut of CO2 emissions it’s also rather poor, because the 60% figure and the targets outlined by Stern and Kyoto, for example, are predicated on the principle that emissions from developing nations will increase. These factors could therefore equally be given as reasons not to increase the UK’s target.

It seems that the CCC’s recommendation owes less to climate science than it does to climate headlines from the last 18 months. Headlines which, almost without fail, have painted a far more drastic and alarming story than the science warrants. ‘Sceptics’ are often criticised for placing emphasis on single studies whose findings fall outside of the opinion of the consensus, represented by the IPCC reports. Yet the CCC seem to have based their recommendation on whatever alarmist literature they can find.

The broader view of future climate in 2007 is arguably more positive than it was in 2000. Yet the CCC want us to believe that things are ‘worse than previously thought’ in order to justify an increase of the UK’s emissions reduction target. To do this, it waves scientific factoids around in a process which owes more to some kind of pagan ritual than to good science. Like the protesters at last year’s Climate Camp who turned pages from a climate change study into gloves, and marched under the slogan ‘we are armed: only with peer-reviewed science‘, the CCC seemingly wave science around to legitimise policies which will have far-reaching effects on society, and to justify the existence of a political elite which is increasingly estranged from the public.

This voodoo science ritual is being used to arm politicians with something that they desperately lack: direction. The climate change aristocracy now sit and dictate what the terms, values, and principles of UK politics ought to be. And as their influence increases no doubt, so do their cash returns. While their influence extends, so the opportunities to challenge environmentalism through the political process diminishes. Now all a politician has to do to answer critics of environmental policy is say that an ‘independent’ committee has produced its findings.

Politics: available in any colour, as long as it’s green.

Identity Crisis Politics

According to commentisfree, Ewa Jasiewicz is a writer, journalist, human rights activist and union organiser. In a recent post to the site, she identifies a split in the environmental movement between those who aim to stop climate change through ‘the system’, so to speak, i.e. through market solutions and state regulation, and those, such as her, who believe that nothing short of an anarchist revolution can solve the ‘climate crisis’.

How do we bring about a transformation which empowers us all? Grassroots organising in cooperative, low-impact, sustainable ways, glimpsed at the Climate Camp, and practised daily by millions, is one way towards this. Another is to live at the sharpest end of climate chaos today. … Changing our sources of energy without changing our sources of economic and political power will not make a difference. Neither coal nor nuclear are the “solution”, we need a revolution.

An interesting point to notice here is that anarchism, which, whether you had any sympathy with it or not, once had at its core some sophisticated ideas and principles, but is today framed in language relating to biospheres, ecosystems, and carbon budgets. It is by appealing to ‘science’ and anxieties about climate catastrophe — rather than our consciences — that today’s ‘revolutionary’ political arguments are made.

Jasiewicz was responding to comments made by George Monbiot at the climate camp, where he apparently ‘endorsed the use of the state as a partner in resolving the climate crisis’.

George is having something of an epiphany. Again. He recently conceded that atomic energy might be worth considering, a position he has rejected in the past. Jasiewicz claims that the climate camp represents the latest expression of a radical English tradition, which ‘stretches back to the Diggers, Levellers and the Luddites’ – movements which were once highly regarded by Monbiot, who helped to establish the Land is Ours, a group which also models itself on the Diggers. And as Jasiewicz points out, the camps’ members ‘honed their skills in the anti-roads movement of the mid-1990s’ – which Monbiot was also instrumental in establishing and publicising. But now he seems less certain of the radical positions he espoused less than a decade ago. In his introduction to his book Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain, Monbiot said in 2000,

The struggle between people and corporations will be the defining battle of the twenty-first century.

Reading that passage from just 8 years ago, you would have thought that Monbiot might have more sympathy with Jasiewicz’s appeal for a revolution today. Now, however, in reply to Jasiewicz, he tells us on commentisfree that,

Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim.

This is all the more surprising, given that, in 2000, following the passage above, Mobiot was sure that,

If the corporations win, liberal democracy will come to an end. The great social institutions which have defended the weak against the strong – equality before the law, representative government, democratic accountability and the sovereignty of parliament – will be toppled.

This conversion from radical politics, mirrors a sentiment expressed by climate change activist Mark Lynas in 2004, to Red Pepper,

I think inter-human squabbles about wealth distribution are now taking place within the context of a major destruction of the ecosystems which all of us depend on: rich, poor, black, white, homo sapiens or any other species. Therefore my argument is that the left-right political divide should no longer be the defining key priority. The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere.

Equality is out, and the corporate takeover of the world is okay, just so long as it sorts out the climate. Lynas’ and Monbiot’s convergence on climate change as the ultimate issue in the future represents the final collapse of ideas that they have espoused in the past. It is intellectual exhaustion which takes them to where they stand. In spite of his epiphany, Monbiot has little light to shed on the world. Speaking about the young people on the Climate Camp, Monbiot continues his reply to Jasiewicz ( called ‘Identity Politics in Climate Change Hell’ on his website)

[Jasiewicz’s article] is a fine example of the identity politics that plagued direct action movements during the 1990s, and from which the new generation of activists has so far been mercifully free.It would be a tragedy if, through the efforts of people like Ewa, they were to be diverted from this urgent task into the identity politics that have wrecked so many movements.

Yet Jasiewicz does not mention race, age, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability. So it is curious that Monbiot – who claims to have held a professorship in politics at a UK university – should be so confused about what identity politics actually is. The subtitle of his article gives the game away:

In seeking to put politics ahead of action, Ewa Jasiewicz is engaging in magical thinking of the most desperate kind.

Monbiot confuses political identity with identity politics. In other words, what beset the movements he was involved with in the past were political ideas themselves. Jasiewicz, who embraces the ideas that made Monbiot the poster-boy of the disoriented Guardian-reading Liberal-Left of the 1990s for standing in the way of roads, housing developments, and corporate expansion, is now doing ‘magical thinking’. Where Monbiot once stood bravely in front of bulldozers (in front of the media) in order to resist ‘the corporate takeover of Britain’, he now thinks that such politics is ‘magical thinking’. That is indeed a change of heart. We have written before about Monbiot’s epiphanies. And last month, Spiked-Online editor, Brendan O’Neill reviewed his latest book, Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice.

Monbiot, who once harried tourists, workers and shoppers over their bad habits but who now writes endlessly of science and sums, personifies an important shift that has taken place under the tyranny of environmentalism: the scientisation of elite fear and prejudice. And what of the science of climate change itself? No doubt there is research that shows the planet has warmed, and that man may have played a role in its warming; yet this science, too, has conveniently metamorphosed into a political and moral campaign to lower people’s horizons and keep them in their place. Call me a cynic, a doubter, even a denier if you like, I don’t care; but when scientific research continually and conveniently, almost magically, ‘proves’ that people are disgusting and must rein in their desires and change their habits – just as the elite caste, from priests to politicians, have been arguing for decades! – then I get suspicious.

(As an interesting aside, given Monbiot’s and Lynas’ rejection of Left politics, it is funny that in their criticism, they have accused of Spiked, and O’Neill of being ‘far-right’ ‘reactionary’, and ‘pro-corporate’.  )

O’Neill notes the ‘metamorphosis of Monbiot’ from fringe but media-friendly weirdo, to member of the establishment, legitimised by ‘science’. Mark Lynas, who, just a decade ago was pushing custard pies into the face of Bjorn Lomborg, has undergone a similar transformation. His work of fiction, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet recently won an accolade from the Royal Society – its award for ‘science’ writing, worth £10,000. We said at the time,

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

What Jasiewicz, Monbiot, and Lynas have in common is that the philosophies they have attached themselves have grown increasingly feeble. In response, the urgency of climate change alarmism is used to prop up their ailing arguments – ‘if you don’t do as we say, the world will end’. As we say above, Jasiewic frames her anarchism principally in terms of anthropogenic climate change. Monbiot used to share similar radical views, but as knee-jerk anti-capitalist, anti-road and land-rights movements failed to get off the ground, he turned up the catastrophic rhetoric, swapping the banner under which he marched for an end-is-nigh sandwich board. As his misconception of identity politics shows, he always lacked a thorough grasp of politics anyway. So it is no surprise that he has failed to create a consistent, coherent and robust understanding of what’s going on in the world, and looks to the skies to arm him with ways to appear radical.

This collapse shows us that environmentalism has not emerged from climate science, but has resorted to it. It is all that is propping up hacks such as Monbiot and Lynas, and the ossified political movements they claim to represent. Similarly, their new friends in the establishment, such as the Royal Society, like the political parties they advise are crumbling, not, as Monbiot worried in 200, because of the influence of corporations, but because of their own internal weaknesses. The Labour Party, the Tories, and the Liberals, and even the BNP join the anarchists, the socialists, and, of course, the Greens, in claiming that theirs are the only party which can save the planet. And all use ‘science’ to make their point.

The crisis is in politics, not in the skies. Monbiot – who, for some reason is regarded as one of the intellectual lights of the environmental movement – misconceives any form of politics as ‘identity politics’ because he struggles to identify himself. Therefore he becomes terrified of any political ‘identity’ or idea which threatens to undermine or usurp his fragile grip, expressed as his fears that ideas themselves will lead to the inevitable destruction of the biosphere by distracting people from their religious commitment to carbon reduction. Similarly, as more mainstream members of the establishment loose confidence in themselves and their functions, their claims to be engaged in ‘saving the planet’ is straightforward self-aggrandizement in the face of nervousness. We can say then, that the wasteland that is the intellectual landscape of contemporary mainstream and radical politics represents its thinkers’ own identity crises. The result is crisis politics – politicians, journalists, and activists who sustain themselves by creating panic, fear, alarm, and tragically, public policy.

90 Minutes of TV; 16 Months of Handwaving…

…and counting…

Every day in the UK, £millions are spent on making sure that national and local government departments do not produce too much CO2. Business, schools and hospitals have to make sure they are complying with regulations that require them to reduce their environmental impact – rather than doing business, teaching, and making people well. Commuters across the country face increasing fuel taxes and rising costs of public and private transport. Children are taught to fear for the security of their future, and their parents are scolded for the selfish act of reproducing in the face of over-population. House-builders are forced to meet new ‘environmental standards’, and architects design homes not for their intended occupants’ comfort and quality of life, but to make sure that their living standards are not ‘unsustainable’. Across the media, countless programs, news items, articles, and lifestyle guides instruct us on how we can – and must – change the way we live our lives in a constant barrage of environmental propaganda. Politicians battle about what percentage cuts of CO2 emissions by when will save the planet, and whether the carrot or the stick is the best way to induce behavioural change. NGOs and supra-national organisations dictate policy to democratic governments. ‘Environmental psychologists’ theorise as to what it is about ‘human nature’ which prevents us from obeying environmental diktats. Climate change is the defining issue of our time – not because of incontrovertible scientific fact, but because it has become the organising principle of public and private life.

A mere 90 minutes of programming on Channel 4, nearly a year and half ago, challenged this orthodoxy’s influence. And those behind the orthodoxy have been spitting feathers ever since. It has raised more green bile than almost any other commentary, and has become the scapegoat for the environmental movement’s failure to connect with the public. Accordingly, the environmentalists’ fragile claim to legitimacy means that its first response is to spit invective at its detractors, the second is to run to the censor. What it has not tried is to engage in debate. To do so would be to appear to concede that, in fact, the debate is not over, the science is not ‘in’, and there are various approaches that can be taken in response to climate change, regardless of whether or not humans are causing it.

“It’s not fair!” scream the complaints to OFCOM, that just 90 minutes of program have been so influential, amidst, literally, months of airtime given over to proclaiming that we are doomed, that we face imminent destruction, that unless we change our lifestyles, millions, maybe billions of people will die from plague, pestilence, drought and famine. Never mind that these prophecies themselves lack a scientific basis; you can say whatever you like about the future, just so long as you don’t make the claim that it is not dominated by catastrophe. The most lurid imaginations can project into the future to paint the kind of picture that would have Hieronymus Bosch screaming for mercy, without ever risking OFCOM’s censure. You can make stuff up, providing it will contribute to the legitimacy of this new form of authoritarianism.

The OFCOM ruling on Martin Durkin’s polemic, The Great Global Warming Swindle, was published yesterday. Its findings are that there were problems; that comments attributed to David King – the UK’s chief scientific advisor at the time – were not made by him, even though they were; that the IPCC had not been given sufficient time to respond to comments made about it, even though it had been; and that Professor Carl Wunsch had been misled as to the nature of the program, even though he hadn’t (and isn’t that what investigative journalists are supposed to do?). On the matter of misleading the public, Ofcom found that it had not been offended, harmed, nor materially misled. A mixed review, then, saying, in summary, that Channel 4 were right to broadcast the polemic, but should have paid more attention to the rights of the injured parties. You’d have thought that would be the end of it. But now Ofcom itself is facing criticism from the eco-inquisition, and their decision is to be appealed by Bob Ward, former communications director of the UK’s Royal Society, on the basis that inaccuracies in the program were harmful to the public. Here he is on BBC Radio 4’s PM show:

Eddie Mair: What got you so cross?

Bob Ward: Well, what’s made me angry is the suggestion by Channel 4 that they have been found by the OFCOM ruling not to have misled the audience. And that is not what the ruling says. The ruling says that there were clearly inaccuracies in the programme and that these were admitted by Channel 4, many of them, but, in the opinion of OFCOM, these did not cause harm or offence to the public. Now, I’m afraid that there is no real justification in the ruling that OFCOM have tested whether it caused harm and offence, and actually, there’s quite a lot of evidence out there that it has caused harm, because people have changed their views, I think, about whether greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change.

EM: And you think that’s down to one programme?

BW: Well, it’s certainly contributed to it, and as Hamish Mykura [Channel 4 Commissioning Editor] was saying, he believes that it’s acted as a lightning rod. It certainly, I mean, people I’ve talked to professionally within the insurance industry with whom I work, some of them have been swayed, and that’s quite damaging. So, as a result, I think it’s certainly true that I and many of the other complainants are now going to appeal against the OFCOM decision on the grounds that there is clear evidence of harm.

EM: Do you think perhaps that some of the complaints that went to OFCOM were too detailed and too technical?

BW: Well, OFCOM did say that they are not there to rule on scientific accuracy, so it’s certainly been a challenge, which is why it’s taken them 16 months to rule. But it’s disappointing that they have reached the conclusions that they have – that although they recognise there are inaccuracies, it didn’t cause harm. They don’t appear to have investigated whether there is harm and how you would justify this. In fact, the OFCOM process is not very transparent itself; it’s not clear how they went about assessing the accuracy of these claims.

EM: Isn’t it true though – and this came over in the interview on The World At One – that while Channel Four obviously broadcast this programme, it intends to broadcast Al Gore’s documentary when it becomes available for television, so a range of views are being represented?

BW: That’s true. And one doesn’t object to a range of views. But there has to be a responsibility among broadcasters not to broadcast factually inaccurate information. That must be against the public interest. And I just don’t accept that broadcasting a programme like this, which was inaccurate about a subject as important as climate change, does not harm the public interest. And that unfortunately is what OFCOM said.

We have argued before that what emerges from the hand-wringing about the few moments of broadcasting that challenge environmentalism is not the exposure of the conspiratorial network of ‘well-funded denialists that environmentalists and the likes of David King and Bob Ward want us to believe exists. Indeed, such shrill hectoring better serves to show the environmental movement in its true colours. The fact that Environmentalists have been unable to laugh off or ignore what they regard as inaccurate tosh speaks volumes about the confidence in their own flimsy arguments. Without the argumentative ammunition to make their case politically, they need to make it into a morality tale. Environmentalists need Durkin and the Swindle like a pantomime needs a villain. They’ve written him into the script. If he didn’t exist, they’d have to invent him.

The Swindle has been made a scapegoat by pollsters Ipsos Mori, Bob Ward and his former boss Bob May, George Monbiot and many others desperate to explain the failure of Environmentalism to capture public hearts and minds. One has to wonder, then, what they hope to achieve by raising the profile of the film. The history of censorship shows that the more noise you make about something you regard as an abomination, the more interesting you make it, and the further you undermine your own position. The reaction to the Swindle has, since we began the blog, led us to look more closely at the activities of the Royal Society, and Bob Ward and co themselves. It turns out that his own position is not so spotless.

In June last year, we recorded Bob May, erstwhile president of the Royal Society, lying to an audience in Oxford about the Swindle‘s director, Martin Durkin. May told the audience that Durkin was responsible for a three part series denying the link between HIV and AIDS, and that this form of climate scepticism was equivalent to denying the link between passive smoking and lung disease. Where were Bob Ward’s complaints about mispresentation and calls for accuracy? It’s hard to believe that May would have made such an error of fact in public, when he publicly demands that we ‘respect the facts‘. All the more ironic is that in counseling us to ‘respect the facts’, he should made several further errors of fact, not least in his translation of ‘Nullius in Verba’, but also in his statement of fact that ’15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming’, omitting the fact that this is aworst-case scenario predicted by just a single study. Again, where was Bob Ward and his calls for accuracy? He was busy penning inaccuracies of his own, perhaps. In his open letter to Martin Durkin’s Wag TV, one of Five major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence in the film concerned Durkin’s suggestion that the global temperature slump in the 1950s and ’60s, which was concurrent with rising emissions of greenhouse gases, was problematic for orthodox global warming arguments. Ward asserted that it is established that this is the result of white aerosols masking the greenhouse effect, and yet mainstream climate scientists we spoke to described the evidence for that as flimsy, and said that the debate continues. Another of the ‘five misrepresentations’ concerned Durkin’s argument that solar activity is a major driver of rising temperatures. The science has long been settled, said Ward. So why did the Royal Society find it necessary to publish new research based on a new dataset to demonstrate that the sun was not responsible for global warming after all? And just to make sure we got the message, they even launched the research with the strapline ‘the truth about global warming!

All this is not to suggest that the weight of evidence points to the sun rather than anthropogenic CO2 as the culprit. We are more concerned with the double standards employed by the Royal Society and its associates, a body that should surely be standing back from the squabbling and providing cool, calm information about the science in all its glorious complexity. A body that deals in a currency of facts needs to be especially careful about how it wields them. Like a body that bangs on about the dodgy financial interests of ‘deniers’ looks rather silly when its own dealings are on the grubby side of squeaky clean.

So, 16 months after the event, we have a report that says Durkin might have stretched the facts a tad, might have been a bit less than entirely honest with his contributors, might not have been quite as balanced as he could have been. And we are supposed to be surprised? It’s a TV programme. We could have got the same answer from a taxi driver as from a shiny report from an unelected quango. Meanwhile a browse through the pretty pie charts in OFCOM’s carbon audit suggests that the number of plastic coffee cups and notepaper used by OFCOM over those 16 months might have had a bigger negative impact on the planet than any seeds of doubt cast by Durkin’s film. If you think that’s a trivial point, then read George Monbiot’s recent comment on the silly affair, where he asks ‘why does Channel 4 seem to be waging a war against the greens?’.

This ‘War against the Greens’ consists of Durkin’s Swindle, his 2000 film about GM technology (an issue which Monbiot cannot claim the scientific establishment in the form of the Royal Society was with him on) and three-part series in 1997 called Against Nature, and a film by a different producer in 1990. And… errr… that’s it. That’s the extent of this ‘war’. Channel 4 broadcasts 24 hours a day, and has done for most of the past 18 years. Of nearly 160,000 hours of programming, this ‘war’ makes up around five hours; just 300 minutes. Monbiot continues:

It is arguable that no organisation in the United Kingdom has done more to damage the effort to protect the environment

If he’s right, then he’s got absolutely nothing to worry about.

Sceptics and critics of Environmentalism have been portrayed as cranks, weirdos and outsiders. You can make your own mind up about the truth of that. What the reaction to them shows, however, is a deep-seated anxiety which is totally disproportionate to reality. Monbiot and Ward’s paranoid hystrionics about the audacity of Channel 4 and Martin Durkin is nothing short of sheer lunacy. Their hypocrisy and unfounded outrage is breath-taking to an extent that it’s hard to actually conceive of an historical, or even pathological precedent. You would have to be seriously off your rocker to imagine that 5 hours of broadcasting over the course of two decades constituted a war, let alone even a mild threat. The real war – if there is a war, some might dare to suggest that it is simply debate about policy in a democratic society – is a war against journalistic freedom to present Greens such as George Monbiot and Bob Ward as the utter lunatics they really are. Fortunately it doesn’t take documentary films to show this; they do it all by themselves. You don’t need to portray Monbiot as a sinister purveyor of authoritarian misanthrophopy; you can just read his column.

$IR NI¢HOLA$ $T£RN

Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the famous Stern Report, which underpins many an argument in favour of climate change mitigation, is behind a ‘carbon credit reference agency‘ launched today.

“If we are to attract the levels of finance necessary to make this a mainstream market and have a strong impact on emissions reduction, risks must be clearly understood, articulated and managed. A detailed ratings system is a vital tool to bring greater clarity, transparency and certainty to the market,” he said. 

Of course, where there’s muck, there’s brass.

The agency, run by the IdeaCarbon group of which Lord Stern is vice-chairman [he is in fact vice-chairman of IDEAglobal], said it would offer investors a guide to the quality of credits and the likelihood that they would be delivered. Sellers of carbon credits would have to pay to have their products rated, while buyers would also pay to gain access to the ratings. 

IDEAcarbon sell themselves accordingly:

IDEAcarbon is an independent and professional provider of ratings, research and strategic advice on carbon finance. Our services are designed to provide leading financial institutions, corporations, governments, traders and developers with unbiased intelligence and analysis of the factors that affect the pricing of carbon market assets. 

Other group directors include:

Ian Johnson – Chairman
Ian joined IDEAcarbon following a distinguished career at the World Bank. For eight years he was the Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development overseeing its work on climate change and carbon finance. Prior to that he played a major role in negotiating the establishment of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and managed its day-to-day operations for six years. Ian is presently an advisor to Globe, G8+5 and to the UNFCCC. 

and

Samuel Fankhauser – Managing Director (Strategic Advice)
Sam served on the 1995, 2001 and 2007 assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He also gained hands-on experience in the design of emission reduction projects as a climate change economist for the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank. Sam joined IDEAcarbon from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, where his most recent position was Deputy Chief Economist.
 

Now, just imagine the fuss that would ensue, were some figure who was depended on for his impartial advice to make public statements on climate change that weren’t in accordance with the ‘consensus’, and it turned out that that person had a financial interest in the public’s perception on matters that he advised about? Might there not be some protest? After all, it’s not as if his advice is subtle:

Lord Stern, the former World Bank chief economist whose landmark report on the economics of climate change warned the world risked plunging into economic depression if action was not taken urgently on greenhouse gases, said carbon trading was a “key plank” in dealing with climate change. 

It is often said that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. Well, it turns out that it will be great for the rich. As a December ’07 press release shows, there’s plenty to be positive about climate change:

“By 2020 the global carbon market could be worth EUR 240-450 billion” says Lord Nicholas Stern, Vice Chairman of IDEAGlobal Group, in the inaugural issue of CARBONfirst 

He’s no fool, Sir Nick. This gives the lie to the claims that environmentalism is the continuation of anti-capitalism – there is clearly room for capitalists at the fair-trade, organic, global warming beano.

Just shouting about hypocrisy gets nothing done, and doesn’t change anything. But how does this happen? Why isn’t Stern embarrassed about this? Why don’t we see an equivalent to Exxonsecrets.org, showing the monied interests buzzing around the global warming issue? Why is it that this kind of barefaced conflict of interests is largely overlooked, while people like James Hansen call for oil company executives to face trials for ‘high crimes against nature and humanity‘, allegedly for distorting the public perception of climate change for profit?

What this shows is that ‘the ethics of climate change’ allow for financial and political interests to be overlooked for the ‘greater good’. The fact that Stern has been instrumental in creating the idea of mitigation serving that greater good must, by the very standards demanded by the environmental movement, surely raise questions about his profiting from it. Yet don’t expect outrage, because, as we have seen before, the ethics of climate change only apply one way. To challenge Sir Nicholas’s apparent profiting from his report would be to undermine the very foundations of so many environmentalists’ arguments. For example, one of our favourites, Sir Bob May, former president of the Royal Society, in his review of the Stern Report and George Monbiot’s Heat, cites Stern as an authority on ‘the facts’ which we are expected to ‘respect’.

Despite the growing weight of evidence of climate change, along with growing awareness of the manifold adverse consequences, 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. […] Whoever got things started, this is a ball which ExxonMobile picked up and ran with, shuttling lobbyists in and out of the White House as it did so. Following earlier talks and seeking to exemplify its centuries-old motto – Nullius in Verba (which roughly translates as “respect the facts”) – the Royal Society recently and unprecedentedly wrote to ExxonMobile, complaining about its funding for “organisations that have been misinforming the public about the science of climate change”, and more generally for promoting inaccurate and misleading views – specifically that scientists do not agree about the influence of human activity on rising temperatures. 

 

The Royal Society: From Science to Fiction

Eco-activist Mark Lynas, has won the Royal Society’s prize for popular science writing, for his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.

Except that it isn’t science, it’s fiction. Science fiction; it takes a vaguely plausible scientific possibility, extrapolates it, and makes it the situation in which some form of drama plays out. For every one degree rise in temperature, Lynas considers what might happen to life on Earth.

Professor Jonathan Ashmore, Chair of the Judges said: “Lynas gives us a compelling and gripping view of how climate change could affect our world. It presents a series of scientifically plausible, worst case scenarios without tipping into hysteria. Six degrees is not just a great read, written in an original way, but also provides a good overview of the latest science on this highly topical issue. This is a book that will stimulate debate and that will, Lynas hopes, move us to action in the hope that this is a disaster movie that never happens. Everyone should read this book.”

‘Without tipping into hysteria’? Here are two versions of the front cover of the book,

The image on the left, like all clichéd science fiction, helps us to suspend disbelief by showing us an iconic landmark – Big Ben – ravaged by whatever the threat is supposed to be.

This is exactly what happened in the other global warming fantasy, The Day After Tomorrow (left). On the Right, we can see the Whitehouse being smashed by aliens. This kind image is used to inform us that the threat is to the order of the world. Our values, laws, institutions, organisations, and security are all threatened by whatever it is the science-fictionalist is writing about.

Of course, we should never judge a book by its cover. It would be unfair to claim that Jonathan Ashmore is wrong to claim that Lynas’s book isn’t ‘hysteria’, just on the basis of the book cover. Though, having said that, the cover does quote the Sunday Times, who say “… I tell you now, is terrifying”. We haven’t the time to review the book here. So here’s a couple of clips from the book, made into a film, featuring Lynas himself, to tell us what he imagines us to be facing.

Is this still ‘not hysteria’? We believe that it is, because, although Lynas appears to have ‘researched’ the ‘scientific evidence’, botching factoids leached from single-studies and worse case scenarios is not ‘sound science’, it is terrifying, and it hasn’t been subjected to any kind of scrutiny. Worse case scenarios are themselves necessarily science fiction – they have value not to science, but to prurient imaginations and politics. Detaching our treatment of them from the caveat that they are both worst-case, hypothetical treatments of very new, untested, unchecked, and unsubstantiated science is nothing but hysteria. Ashmore is highly misleading and dishonest in this regard. Merely saying that it is not hysteria doesn’t make it not so. Would he welcome, we wonder, a book which gave a best-case scenario treatment of the science, where humanity not only survives a 6 degree rise in temperatures, but positively thrives. No, he would not. Would it win any awards? The green movement would throw their toys out of the pram at such a book being published, let alone it being given such an accolade. They would call for it to be banned, claiming that it was ‘politically-motivated’, and misleading. There would be claims that its production had been paid for by Exxonmobil, by a scientist who had prostituted his intelligence and position for profit.

But this is not the first venture into fiction for the Royal Society and its members. It’s current president, Martin Rees wrote in 2004, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond (sold in the UK as Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?) This is a bleak, miserable, pointless story about how our chances of surviving the next 100 years are just 50-50.

Also not against making things up is the previous president of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford. Last year, we caught him making things up about Martin Durkin, director of the Great Global Warming Swindle.

[youtube c2rSEayHQeg]

May told an audience in Oxford – where he shared a platform with Mark Lynas, interestingly – that Durkin had produced a series of 3 films denying the link between HIV and AIDS, for which Channel 4 were forced to apologise. That is untrue. Earlier last year, following an article reviewing 6 (also alarmist) books on the environment including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Nicholas Stern’s report, and George Monbiot’s Heat, we discovered that, inconveniently, May had taken a few liberties with the facts himself, citing a single study, referenced in the Stern Report to make the claim that ’15–40 per cent of species‘ were vulnerable to extinction at just 2 degrees of warming, and that oil companies were responsible for a conspiracy to spread misinformation, and prevent action on climate change. This was a double irony, because in the same article, he had translated the Royal Society’s motto – Nullius in Verba – as ‘respect the facts’, rather than the traditional ‘on the word of no one’. Indeed, had May followed the Royal Society’s own advice, he wouldn’t have been taking Stern’s, Monbiot’s, and Gore’s words for it. But rather than being the incredulous scientist, and subjecting these fictions to the scrutiny we’d expect, May used the groundless alarmism found in these texts to arm ‘science’ – or rather, the Royal Society – with new authority.

As we said in a letter to the TLS,

Sir, – “Nullius in Verba”, the motto of the Royal Society, is usually translated as “on the word of no one”. That is a fine motto, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority…

It seems that, rather than basing knowledge about the material universe on experimental evidence, the Royal Society and its senior members instead seek authority in science fiction; the extrapolation of superficially plausible science, forward into the future, where a drama plays out.

Mark Lynas first drew significant attention to himself for his views on climate change in 2001, when he threw a custard-pie into the face of Bjorn Lomborg, during a book launch.

Pie-man Mark Lynas said he was unable to ignore Lomborg’s comments on climate change. “I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face,” said Lynas, “in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.”

Many countries in the Third World are also experiencing the effects of climate change. In Africa, Lake Chad is now a twentieth of the size it was in the 1950s, leaving millions potentially without water. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is planning the evacuation of its entire population as sea levels continue to rise.

“And yet despite all this evidence,” comments Lynas, “Lomborg somehow contrives to argue that it is cheaper to go on burning fossil fuels than to switch to clean energy to prevent runaway global warming. This feeds right into the agenda of profiteering multinationals like
Esso.” He continued: “I don’t see why the environment should suffer every time some bored, obscure academic fancies an ego trip. This book is full of dangerous nonsense.

Now, however, Lynas the one-time circus-activist stuntman, has his childish perspective on the world given respectability by the establishment’s accolades, and has expensive films made about his dark fantasy.

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

Mark Lynas (left), with Bob May (right) at the Oxford is My World lectures, organised by Oxford City Council, to persuade its population to cut their CO2 emissions

Fat People are Killing the Butterflies

Steve Connor, science editor at the Independent newspaper warns us that

Tropical insects rather than polar bears could be among the first species to become extinct as a result of global warming, a study has found. 

What does that even mean? Are the polar bears OK after all? Is the environmental movement looking for a new mascot for climate change? Is it out with the charismatic mega-fauna because of the environmental ethic that ‘small is beautiful’? But it’s nothing compared to the headline it appears under:

Insects ‘will be climate change’s first victims’ 

An image of a butterfly follows, with the caption…

Many tropical insect species, including butterflies, can only tolerate a narrow range of temperatures, and an average rise of 1C to 2C could be disastrous 

Contrast with the measured language of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article on which Connor reports, and which the journal has kindly made available for free:

Our analyses imply that, in the absence of ameliorating factors such as migration and adaptation, the greatest extinction risks from global warming may be in the tropics, where biological diversity is also greatest. 

This is not the first time the Independent has gone on about butterflies as the harbinger of doom. Back in March – a particularly cold March, as it happens – Environment Editor Michael McCarthy hit us with:

Last month, [climate change] produced its most remarkable image yet – a photograph, taken in Dorset, of a red admiral, an archetypal British summer butterfly, feeding on a snowdrop, an archetypal British winter flower. 

But as we pointed out, the red admiral is far tougher that McCarthy gives it credit for, occasionally making an appearance in Winter, and is certainly not unusual in Spring and Autumn. Yet again, the Independent is making claims about the vulnerability of species that aren’t consistent with the state of knowledge.

The BBC is no more level-headed about the research…

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 5.4C rise in tropical temperatures expected by 2100. 

5.4C expected by whom? Well, expected by the anonymous author of the BBC article, apparently. Certainly, the IPCC makes no specific prediction for temperature rise this century. And 5.4ºC is not mentioned in the PNAS study, nor in the accompanying press release. The only match we can find is in IPCC AR4 where it is the top-end prediction for SRES scenario A2 (Table SPM.3), the range of which is 2.0-5.4ºC. But why pick 5.4ºC? If you’re just looking for a big number to scare people with, then why not plump for the upper value for the A1 scenario (1.4-6.4°C)? Is this like buying the second cheapest bottle of wine in a restaurant to prove you are not a skinflint? Or like Josef Fritzl wondering why everyone hates him when he could have been so much more horrible? [EDIT: The BBC has now “corrected” this error.]

Call us pedantic if you like; but imagine the outcry had the BBC reported that global temperatures are expected to rise by only 1.4ºC by the end of the century (the second lowest low point among the four AR4 SRES scenarios). But then, of course, it’s not just journalists (and activists) who are happy to over-egg the ecopocalyptic pudding. When, for example, Bob May (erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former chief scientific advisor to the UK government) confidently asserted in the popular media that a global temperature of 2ºC will put 15-40% of all species at risk of extinction, it was on the basis of a single, worst-case study. He was no less unobjective when he announced that climate swindler du jour Martin Durkin was also some sort of whacko HIV/AIDS denialist. And then there are the science academies, who, while being suspicious of the industry move towards open access publishing, are happy to make papers of the the-world-is-screwed-and-we’re-all-going-to-die variety available to all and sundry for free. Which is what the US’s National Academy of Sciences have done with this paper. And last year the Royal Society did it, too, when they published a paper which they claimed proved once and for all that the sun has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. This wasn’t just any old paper; it was, in the words of the Royal Society itself, “the truth about global warming“. And for some strange reason, we are still expected to take these academies’ opinions on what we should do about climate change as the last word on truth and beauty – “respect the facts” as Bob May puts it.

Newspaper editors and headline writers could – possibly – be forgiven for not understanding quite how science works. It’s harder to see how science correspondents could. And it’s laughable that the science academies seem not to. Funnier is that scientists and science academies are only too happy to criticise journalists, newspapers and TV producers when they report the science ‘wrongly’ (and you can bet your house that none of them will be criticising the Independent or the BBC on this occasion). But what do they expect? What sort of example do they think are they setting?

As we keep saying, this is no conspiracy. It’s just that – as they’ve been trying to tell us for years – scientists are human, too. Being human and everything, scientists are as jittery about the future and unsure of their role in society as the rest of us. But just because it turns out that they are as anxious as the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to take the claims of environmentalists at face value, or any less reason to maintain objectivity. Just as global warming is convenient for local governments, directionless leaders and crisis politics, it is also convenient for scientists and science academies lacking raison d’être.

Science might never have been quite the objective producer of facts that we like to think it is. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t strive to be an objective seeker of facts. Because striving to be objective about the facts of the material universe is precisely what science is supposed to do. When it applies itself instead to arming political narratives with legitimacy and authority, it talks itself out of a job.

The AGW Debate Descends to 'Science'

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a statement last month, outlining its position on global warming…

The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. 

The AGU does not explain what a “balanced” climate is supposed to be, nor do they offer any explanation as to what a “natural rate of change” is. This is, of course, because neither statement is scientific. The idea that the climate is “balanced” is an assumption, but with almost mystical significance, as is the idea that there are “natural” and “unnatural” rates of change.

Andy Revkin ran a post about the statement on the New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, the responses to which constitute an epic online battle between some high-profile sceptics and warmers. (The link follows, but BE WARNED: the conversation is a gigantic 1050+ posts long, and it is likely to cause your browser some problems. HERE. )

Environmentalism’s public enemy #2, Marc Morano, raised the point that the statement cannot be representative of the organisation’s 45,000+ membership. This then led to a comment from Raymond T. Pierrehubert, a member of the climate modelling blog team, Real Climate. (A fine example of newspeak, that climate modellers call themselves ‘Real’ Climate”).

In response to Mr. Morano, I’ll echo one of the other commenters in pointing out that AGU is a democracy, and the officers are elected by vote of the entire membership. If any significant part of the leadership were notably out of tune with the membership, they would be voted out of office pretty swiftly, or would never have risen to the posts they have. To deny the significance of this statement on the grounds that it is a product of the council is like denying the legitimacy of US law because we have a representative democracy. 

It emerged during the conversation that the AGU statement was in fact written by a committee, appointed by the AGU’s council, agreed ‘unanimously’ by the elected council after a seven-month process. That’s less than a paragraph every two months, yet it possesses zero explanatory power. No science. It could have been written by any old eco-warrior. It is a political statement.

It is striking that the truth of the statement was defended on the basis of the AGU’s democratic organisational structure, as though material facts can be determined in this way. Voting is a test of mandate, not a test of truth. The AGU leadership only needs to demonstrate legitimacy to its membership in a small way. You wouldn’t expect earth scientists to divide themselves on political matters, as though, for example, plate tectonics was a “left wing” theory of geography, and the nitrogen cycle a piece of neoliberal political philosophy. Earth science is about studying the material world, and it seems hard to imagine why differences of political ideology should split that study. However, the last paragraph of the statement says,

With climate change, as with ozone depletion, the human footprint on Earth is apparent. The cause of disruptive climate change, unlike ozone depletion, is tied to energy use and runs through modern society. Solutions will necessarily involve all aspects of society. Mitigation strategies and adaptation responses will call for collaborations across science, technology, industry, and government. Members of the AGU, as part of the scientific community, collectively have special responsibilities: to pursue research needed to understand it; to educate the public on the causes, risks, and hazards; and to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

The statement asks for the world to put earth scientists at the centre of a political process involving “all aspects of society”. Whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to admire their political ambition. The AGU statement attributes change to humans, and takes the unscientific view that change will spell disaster for human civilisation, unless, of course, we surrender sovereignty to earth scientists because,

Members of the AGU … have special responsibilities … to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

If making statements such as “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming” is “communicating clearly and objectively”, then god help us. Such alarmist and unscientific language give all of us good reason to challenge statements like this. Which is unfortunately what didn’t happen, back at the NYT blog.

The conversation did not answer any problems with the AGU’s statement about the science (what is a “balanced climate”, etc) and nor did it answer the political questions raised by such politicisation of science. Instead, it avoided both by descending into wranglings of the eternal “it is happening”/”it isn’t happening” variety, with increasingly bitter accusations being hurled at and by either side. This seems to be how any discussion about climate change ends up. It resorts to “science”. But it is science that has been neutered. It is not science with explanatory power, it is science which is used to legitimise a course of action. The logic appears to be that if it is, once and for all, comprehensively proven that humans had influenced a change in the climate, the rest of the argument – that we put earth science at the heart of our political process – follows from it. But even showing that climate change “is happening”, doesn’t explain a “balance” or “stable” climate. As it happens, sceptics and warmers do find plenty of science to argue about – which is a good thing. Perhaps if climate scientists didn’t put their names to statements which appeal to “balance” and “natural” rates of change, those arguments would be harder for the sceptics to have. You don’t actually need to be a climate scientist to know that it’s bullshit.

Political arguments about the way to respond to climate change get deferred to scientific arguments. This takes the form of “the science is settled, and anyone who doubts it has a political agenda” followed by “it is happening” versus “it isn’t happening”. If the conversation at the NYT blog was just a battle of received wisdoms of the kind you can find all over the web, then it would not be significant. But the blog was populated by many of the “qualified scientists” that we’re being asked to store so much faith in, and who posted to the blog to register their support of the AGU statement. These were no amateurs. Warmers ought to realise that, although they may not believe themselves to be arguing from an ideological position, what they are arguing for is deeply ideological; they want to reorganise society around a new system of values. No amount of science and fear mongering legitimises that intention.

If you challenge politicians or public figures on climate policy you will hear the answer that it is the view of the majority of scientists. We have pointed out many times before that public statements on climate rarely match the reality of what has been said by the IPCC, even when it’s high-profile scientists (such as Lord Ma
y
, or Lord Rees), not politicians, who are doing the doom-saying. They ought to be answering questions about what kind of world that would be. Even a world dominated by climate-scientists-as-politicians would not have a “stable” or “balanced” climate, nor will that world be any better informed as to what a stable or balanced climate actually is.