Hari Drama Hari Gaia

In Friday’s Independent, Johann Hari has achieved a quite remarkable feat.

How I wish that the global warming deniers were right
Are you prepared to take a 50-50 gamble on the habitability of the planet?

In just 1400 words he manages to cram in just about every fallacy from the environmentalist’s handbook: he appeals to the dodgiest of authorities, sells politics, catastrophism and factoids as scientific truth, misrepresents his opponents’ arguments, cherrypicks data, explains human behaviour in biologically deterministic terms and politics in environmentally deterministic ones, and resorts to the green equivalent of Pascal’s wager while accusing ‘deniers’ of religious zeal.

So let’s start at the very beginning, where he ploughs straight in with the ultimate in appeals to authority:

Every day, I pine for the global warming deniers to be proved right. I loved the old world – of flying to beaches wherever we want, growing to the skies, and burning whatever source of energy came our way. I hate the world to come that I’ve seen in my reporting from continent after continent – of falling Arctic ice shelves, of countries being swallowed by the sea, of vicious wars for the water and land that remains. When I read the works of global warming deniers like Nigel Lawson or Ian Plimer, I feel a sense of calm washing over me. The nightmare is gone; nothing has to change; the world can stay as it was.

That’s right – the authority he cites is himself. The insufferably misanthropic and self-important ‘comedian’ Marcus Brigstocke, who has also been to the Arctic to see melting ice – twice – so you don’t have to, did the same thing on a recent edition of the BBC’s Question Time (available in the UK only):

I’ve visited the Arctic twice, and the ice is disappearing. I can tell you that the Inuit people that I met in Greenland, who are not part of some grand conspiracy as Melanie [Phillips] might have it, will tell you, year on year, they are seeing dramatic changes. The ice is reducing significantly. You know, I helped a team of scientists from the National Oceanography centre to carry out their experiments [etc]

We should believe Hari and Brigstocke, their argument goes, because they have access to information that we do not. It’s the very stuff of dodgy dossiers. (Talking of which, Hari initially supported the invasion of Iraq, so we look forward to another article at some point where he confesses how ‘terribly wrong‘ he has been on climate change, too.) What’s more, merely witnessing melting polar ice for yourself is merely evidence that polar ice melts when it’s warming enough. There is a gaping crevasse between what Hari and Brigstocke have seen and what they think it is evidence for – which is that catastrophe beckons. Hari and Brigstocke’s personal investments in the plight of the Arctic means we should be less, not more willing to believe them.

Back to Hari:

But then I go back to the facts. However much I want them to be different, they sit there, hard and immovable. Nobody disputes that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, like a blanket holding in the Sun’s rays. Nobody disputes that we are increasing the amount of those greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And nobody disputes that the world has become considerably hotter over the past century. (If you disagree with any of these statements, you’d fail a geography GCSE).

The funny thing here is that Hari is correct that nobody would dispute any of these statements, to the extent that even those he has just introduced as ‘deniers’, Ian Plimer and Nigel Lawson, do not dispute them. We can only assume he has read neither of them. Plimer and Lawson hold variously that such statements do not lead inevitably to planetary disaster, that the human influence on warming trends is overstated, that other influences are understated, that the climate system is rather more complicated than such a one-dimensional portrayal would suggest, and that a single-pronged attack on CO2 emissions is undesirable – not that the greenhouse effect is not real or that the world has not been warming. He continues:

Yet half our fellow citizens are choosing to believe the deniers who say there must be gaps between these statements big enough to fit an excuse for carrying on as we are. Shrieking at them is not going to succeed.

What Hari cannot imagine is that large swathes of the public are choosing not to believe the pseudo-scientific hyperbole of alarmists like Hari, even though his very article provides them with all the reason they need. Indeed, in his next breath he resorts to writing off public opinion as the product of primaeval biological urges rather than the result of considered judgement of the available evidence and arguments:

Our first response has to be to accept that this denial is an entirely natural phenomenon. The facts of global warming are inherently weird, and they run contrary to our evolved instincts. If you burn an odourless, colourless gas in Europe, it will cause the Arctic to melt and Bangladesh to drown and the American Mid-West to dry up? By living our normal lives, doing all the things we have been brought up doing, we can make great swathes of the planet uninhabitable? If your first response is incredulity, then you’re a normal human being.

Talk about a backhanded compliment. But as a ‘normal human being’, you are a slave not only to your pre-programmed selfish desires, but also to the mind-controlling propaganda of big business:

It’s tempting to allow this first response to harden into a dogma, and use it to cover your eyes. The oil and gas industries have been spending billions to encourage us to stay stuck there, because their profits will plummet when we make the transition to a low-carbon society. But the basic science isn’t actually very complicated, or hard to grasp. As more carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, the world gets warmer…

Meanwhile, normal human beings are apparently impervious to the onslaught of PR from green pressure groups. As we’ve shown elsewhere, the funds available to the likes of Greenpeace and WWF are orders of magnitude greater than that spent by the ‘well-funded denial machine’.

And there’s more cherry-picking where that came from:

…Every single year since 1917 has been hotter than 1917. Every single year since 1956 has been hotter than 1956. Every single year since 1992 has been hotter than 1992. And on, and on. If we dramatically increase the carbon dioxide even more – as we are – we will dramatically increase the warming. Many parts of the world will dry up or flood or burn.

According to the Met Office’s annual global data series 1850-1998, 1917 and 1992 were exceptionally cold years: there were only 5 years cooler than 1917 in the preceding 66 years; after 1992, the next coldest year was 1878. And we can all play Hari’s game: every year since 1998 has been cooler than 1998, for example.

Moreover, all Hari has achieved here is to restate his initial uncontested premise that the world has been warming over the last century. Just saying it a bit louder this time doesn’t make it any more important or dangerous, or informative as to how to respond. Which is why he has also had to escalate the alarmism.

This is such an uncomfortable claim that I too I have tried to grasp at any straw that suggests it is wrong. One of the most tempting has come in the past few weeks, when the emails of the Hadley Centre at the University of East Anglia were hacked into, and seem on an initial reading to show that a few of their scientists were misrepresenting their research to suggest the problem is slightly worse than it is. Some people have seized on it as a fatal blow – a Pentagon Papers for global warming.

But then I looked at the facts. It was discovered more than a century ago that burning fossil fuels would release warming gases and therefore increase global temperatures, and since then, hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently reached the conclusion that it will have terrible consequences…

By now, Hari has drifted far from his reference point of the physics of the greenhouse and is bobbing around helplessly in a sea of catastrophism. The gap can be bridged only by a blatant untruth. Having started the paragraph with the statement that what followed were the true facts, he just makes it up. ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists’? And there we were thinking that the ‘2500 scientists of the IPCC‘ claim was overstating things. All the scientists, in all the world, across all the scientific sub-disciplines, probably only amount to hundreds of thousands. And it gets worse with almost every additional word: ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently‘ reached the same conclusion? Is that even humanly possible? Does he think that each scientist has their own personal ivory tower or something? ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently reached the conclusion that it will have terrible consequences‘?

A good argument made by just a single scientist trumps even hundreds of thousands of scientists that exist only in someone’s head. So let us quote the University of East Anglia climate scientist, and former director of the Tyndall Centre, Mike Hulme, who is concerned that science is being used to provide certainty over big, complex political issues:

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.

Meanwhile Hari hasn’t even got to the end of his paragraph:

…It would be very surprising if, somewhere among them, there wasn’t a charlatan or two who over-hyped their work. Such people exist in every single field of science (and they are deplorable).

So let’s knock out the Hadley Centre’s evidence. Here are just a fraction of the major scientific organisations that have independently verified the evidence that man-made global warming is real, and dangerous: Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, L’Academie des Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, the UK’s Royal Society, the Academia Brasileira de Ciencias, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the US Environmental Protection Agency… I could fill this entire article with these names.

Well, at least he’s not citing citing himself this time. But he is wrong to say that these institutions have independently verified the evidence. Research bodies such as NASA and NOAA do, like Hadley, collect and analyse data, and test hypotheses, but Hari is lumping these together with scientific academies and professional bodies that represent their membership politically, which have simply issued position statements to the effect that the world has been warming, that anthropogenic greenhouse gases probably have much to with it, and that this presents problems. To ‘knock out the Hadley Centre’s evidence’ is to write off, among many other lines of research, its global surface temperature record (HADCRUT), which, along with NASA’s GISTEMP, is perhaps the most scientifically important and politically influential climate datsets in existence.

A further sign of Hari’s ignorance on the matter is that it was the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Centre (CRU) that was hacked, not Hadley. And Hadley is part of the UK Met Office, not, as Hari says, UEA. But Hadley produces HADCRUT in conjunction with CRU, so by Hari’s reckoning Hadley and CRU should both be ‘knocked out’. Which leaves him with a single temperature record, and a bunch of position statements from organisations that exist to represent their members’ interests. Last year, we took a look at the gestation of the statement issued by one of those professional bodies – the American Geophysical Union – and argued that these statements should be seen as political attempts to put science centre-stage of climate debates rather than objective appraisals of the state of knowledge.

And they haven’t only used one method to study the evidence. They’ve used satellite data, sea level measurements, borehole analysis, sea ice melt, permafrost melt, glacial melt, drought analysis, and on and on. All of this evidence from all of these scientists using all these methods has pointed in one direction. As the conservative journalist Hugo Rifkind put it, the Hadley Centre no more discredits climate science than Harold Shipman discredits GPs.

Climategate may not discredit climate science, but neither does climate science uphold Hari’s apocalyptic vision.

A study for the journal Science randomly sampled 928 published peer-reviewed scientific papers that used the words “climate change”. It found that 100 per cent – every single one – agreed it is being fuelled by human activity. There is no debate among climate scientists. There are a few scientists who don’t conduct research into the climate who disagree, but going to them to find out how global warming works is a bit like going to a chiropodist and asking her to look at your ears.

The Science paper Hari refers to is this one by Naomi Oreskes. She does indeed find evidence for a consensus. But it is a consensus only that ‘the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling’. What Hari does not mention is that Oreskes concluded that:

The question of what to do about climate change is also still open

For Hari, the fact of climate change is equivalent to the moral imperative he thinks it produces. To say that ‘climate change is real’, is to say ‘what is to be done’. As with so many other activists, there is no argument about how to interpret climate change statistics to work out a sensible response. So any degree of scepticism, or any argument about how to respond to degrees of climate change with degrees of responses naturally returns Hari to the core, binary, fact: ‘climate change is real’.

Part of the confusion in the public mind seems to stem from the failure to understand that two things are happening at once. There has always been – and always will be – natural variation in the climate. The ebb from hot to cold is part of Planet Earth. But on top of that, we are adding a large human blast of warming – and it is disrupting the natural rhythm. So when, in opinion polls, people say warming is “natural”, they are right, but it’s only one part of the story.

What worries Hari is that the ‘public mind’ has coped with the nuances of the debate. The idea that the extent of climate change and its effects might have been exaggerated is dangerous.

Once you have grasped this, it’s easy to see through the claim that global warming stopped in 1998 and the world has been cooling ever since. In 1998, two things came together: the natural warming process of El Nino was at its peak, and our human emissions of warming gases were also rising – so we got the hottest year ever recorded. Then El Nino abated, but the carbon emissions kept up. That’s why the world has remained far warmer than before – eight of the 10 hottest years on record have happened in the past decade – without quite reaching the same peak. Again: if we carry on pumping out warming gases, we will carry on getting warmer.

Hari wants to claim that ‘two things are happening at once’ – which may well be true – but is not happy with the corollary that it may be more of the natural than the anthropogenic. No scientist could state with the certainty that Hari has that the persistence of post-98 temperatures can be attributed to increases in CO2. ‘That is why…’ Hari claims, but it is premature. It may well turn out to be true, but the point is not that science can or has said anything about global temperatures, the point is that the ‘scientific’ account that Hari gives is intended to make statements about those who would interpret things differently. The scientific account is used to diminish the moral and intellectual character of ‘deniers’:

That’s why I won’t use the word “sceptic” to describe the people who deny the link between releasing warming gases and the planet getting warmer. I am a sceptic. I have looked at the evidence highly critically, desperate for flaws. The overwhelming majority of scientists are sceptics: the whole nature of scientific endeavour is to check and check and check again for a flaw in your theory or your evidence. Any properly sceptical analysis leads to the conclusion that man-made global warming is real. Denial is something different: it is when no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, could convince you. It is a faith-based position.

Which is rather rich coming from somebody who has just demonstrated that he doesn’t know what those he calls ‘deniers’ are denying, or what ‘science says’, let alone somebody who has to make up what ‘science says’ in order to make moral arguments about ‘deniers’. Also on Friday, Hari popped up on the BBC’s Newsnight Review for a discussion on climate change and culture:

Talking about the Arctic, you know, I was out there this summer to report on this. You know, the Arctic in my lifetime has lost 40% of its summer ice. By 2012 the North Pole will be a point in the open ocean

We have no idea where he plucked these figures from. Hari was born in 1979, which, as luck would have it, is when the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) satellite records begin. According to those records, Arctic summer ice has declined by about 30% since then. We wouldn’t want to be too hard on him for what might well have been an honest slip of the tongue. His prophecy (note the certainty of his statement) about an ice free Arctic summer, is far more malignant. The IPCC’s AR4 estimates it will take 50 to 100 years for that to happen. But there was a record melt after AR4 was written, so NSIDC has come up with a ball-park date of 2030 based on extrapolation from recent melting trends. Other estimates range over many decades and well into the next century. We assume Hari must be referring to Jay Zwally’s study, which is mentioned here. If so, he is missing a trick; if he wants a single scientist’s estimate to speak for science, he could have quoted David Barber of the University of Manitoba who predicted an ice free Arctic summer by last year.

At issue is not really ‘what science says’ about the world’s temperature, nor even speculation about the date at which we can expect the Arctic to be free of ice in summer. The majority of climate scientists could easily take issue with Hari’s silly claim, but it wouldn’t be a very interesting read. What is at issue is the way in which Hari carries on not only making up stats such as this, but wielding them as some kind of talisman, which gives him moral authority. His wild speculation about the future of Arctic ice speaks more about the way in which ‘the science’ exists as a means by which Hari can express his shrill internal dialog. He makes stuff up to give himself a voice, and defends it by claiming to be the vessel through which science speaks. He, like the vast majority of scientists, is the sceptic, he announces. Pity that he’s not such a sceptic that he ever checks his own argument. As we’ve said previously, this inability to self-reflect is the symptom of the angry, shrill, non-scientist, moralising, and disoriented journalist-activists such as Monbiot, Lynas, and now Hari. What they write is science fiction. They incautiously assemble scientific factoids, removed from their scientific context, to construct terrifying narratives about the future. This elevates them to the status of planet-saving super-journos, and from this platform their bizarre stories become the device through which they interpret the world. But they are merely peering into their own arseholes, not, as they claim, through the prism of scientific objectivity. What they see is chaos and catastrophe, but what they do not recognise in what they see is that it is entirely their own confusion staring back at them.

Throughout this blog, and in our last two posts in the context of Climategate, we have argued that environmental politics, not environmental science, underpins the war on climate change, and that at the centre of that politics sits the precautionary principle. We are grateful to Hari, then, for supporting our thesis. He ends his article by casting aside all that science and appealing to the precautionary principle in the form of Pascal’s wager:

So let’s – for the sake of argument – make an extraordinary and unjustified concession to the deniers. Let’s imagine there was only a 50 per cent chance that virtually all the world’s climate scientists are wrong. Would that be a risk worth taking? Are you prepared to take a 50-50 gamble on the habitability of the planet? Is the prospect of getting our energy from the wind and the waves and the sun so terrible that’s not worth it on even these wildly optimistic odds?

We’ll leave aside Hari’s claim that ‘virtually all the world’s climate scientists’ agree that climate change is set to render the planet uninhabitable, other than to say that he seems to be confusing ‘virtually all the world’s climate scientists’ with the singular James Lovelock.

So, first, Hari extrapolates from a handful of rather mundane consensus statements about atmospheric physics in order to conclude that there is only one way forward politically. And now he’s telling us that there’s still only one way forward politically even if those consensus statements are wrong. He presents the future as a stark choice between two competing visions – zero carbon or an uninhabitable planet. Environmentalism or death. He reinforces the point with a story:

Imagine you are about to get on a plane with your family. A huge group of qualified airline mechanics approach you on the tarmac and explain they’ve studied the engine for many years and they’re sure it will crash if you get on board. They show you their previous predictions of plane crashes, which have overwhelmingly been proven right. Then a group of vets, journalists, and plumbers tell they have looked at the diagrams and it’s perfectly obvious to them the plane is safe and that airplane mechanics – all of them, everywhere – are scamming you. Would you get on the plane? That is our choice at Copenhagen.

Hari’s little story is intended to be a cautionary tale about which kind of expertise is pertinent, but it fails, as so many dumbed-down analogies fail. In his striving for simplicity, he not only patronises his readers, but he loses any purchase on the arguments in the debate that is taking place. We picked up Andrew Dessler for the same mistake a couple of years ago. Dessler – a former scientific advisor to Clinton – had asked us to imagine the warming world as a child sick with cancer. Would you take the child to the best pediatric cancer specialists, or to non-specialists, he asked:

So Freeman Dyson makes lists. While I’m certain he’s a smart guy, I would not take a sick child to him, and I won’t take a sick planet to him either. In both cases, he simply does not have the relevant specialist knowledge. That also applies the large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem. The bottom line is that the opinions of most of the skeptics on the list are simply not credible.

Unfortunately for Dessler, we tested his claim that the IPCC were the specialist doctors in his analogy by counting the specialisms of the latest IPCC report’s contributors. It turns out that many of them were precisely the ‘social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem’ that he had complained about. (You can read about WGI here, WGII here and WGIII here). Our detractors argued that we had been disingenuous, and that only IPCC WGI counts, the other two groups – which comprised a much larger proportion of ‘non-expert’ opinions – being less concerned with the ‘Physical Science Basis’, and focusing instead on ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, and the ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’. This misses the point that the arguments about what kind of problem climate change is and what to do about it emerge almost exclusively from WGII and WGIII, not from WGI, yet the putative scientific authority of the IPCC emerges exclusively from WGI.

What Hari, like Dessler, forgets is the difference between the sensitivity of climate to CO2, and the sensitivity of society to climate. Or to put it more broadly, there is a difference between the natural world’s sensitivity to CO2, and human society’s sensitivity to changes in the natural world. Hari and his ilk like to stress the equivalence between the environment’s and society’s sensitivity. They seem to feel that once the scientific case has been made, the political and moral argument has been had and won. This environmental determinism, we have argued, reflects the hollowness of their own outlooks, hence the interminable screeching, hectoring and ranty tone of commentators like Hari, and our favourite, George ‘air travel is like child abuse‘ Monbiot.

We can all tell stories. You’re about to get on a plane with your family. A group of shrill and sanctimonious journalists from the Guardian and Independent newspapers tell you that, if you take the journey, poor people all over the world will die wretched, horrible deaths. They show you statistics showing how many people have died already, and how many more will die in the future. ‘You will be culpable for their deaths’, they say. ‘Do you want their blood on your hands?’ they ask. Then another group of non-experts arrive. They say that there are many ways to understand the poverty that kills people, and that not taking the journey won’t make such lives any better. The journalists return, they say that the other group are funded by huge corporate interests, and cannot be trusted because they are either mad or bad. They tell you that they have science on their side, that climate change is real and is happening, and that they have witnessed its ravages for themselves. Who are you going to trust,’ they demand, ‘us, or the other group?’ Shouldn’t you take the cautious route, just in case? After all, they might be right. You step down from the plane. But as you walk across the tarmac, you notice that the journalists are now getting on the plane. Some of them are going to Copenhagen. One is heading across the Atlantic to lecture Canadians about their climate responsibilities. Another is off to the Arctic, to see some climate change.

Eco-Humanism?

At New Matilda, Sarah Burnside argues that:

The simplest and most compelling argument for addressing climate change is humanist in nature. As human beings, we must take seriously our need to care for each other, whether at the specific level of provision of universal healthcare benefits and international aid, or in the more abstract sense of societal cohesiveness. By extension, policies put forward to combat the effects of climate change need not be justified by invoking Gaia or anthropomorphising dolphins or polar bears.

This statement comes, not, as one might expect, as a criticism of the Green movement’s tendency to mythologise, or anthropomorphise the natural world, but at the end of an attack on ‘deniers’. She concludes:

Rather, progressives sensibly argue that human beings have a duty to each other, including to future generations. Humans will fail in this duty if we place short-term economic gain over the environmental conditions which will shape the lives of humanity in the future.

Arguments like these are drawn not from a “green religion”, but from a belief in humanity.

Burnside must, however, recognise that there certainly exists a ‘green religion’, or at least, that irrational ideas do operate, and achieve influence within the green ‘movement’. She must also recognise that these are the principle weaknesses of the movement she wishes to advance, and moreover, are the principle object of the ‘deniers’ arguments, and ought to be the object of her criticism too.

But as we have pointed out before, it is very hard for environmentalists to criticise their own. It is not a movement which is able to reflect critically on itself, or even its own elements. It is, so to speak, as if its ‘own parts do not smell’. But in fact we don’t need to look far to find intensely anti-human and influential currents within the Green movement that stand opposed to political and material freedoms – so much of it fails Burnside’s test of humanism, comprehensively.

So what are we left with, if we strip away all of the anti-human elements of the entire green movement? We think: nothing.

Burnside may want to disagree. In her attack on ‘denialists’, however, she gives us only two clues as to what a green humanism might consist of:

…human beings have a duty to each other, including to future generations…

and

…we must take seriously our need to care for each other, whether at the specific level of provision of universal healthcare benefits and international aid, or in the more abstract sense of societal cohesiveness.

This account of humanism doesn’t identify anything which makes it distinct. You don’t need to be an environmentalist to believe in ‘universal healthcare’, or for social cohesion, for instance. The rhetorical implication of Burnside’s article is that the ‘deniers’ she lists just don’t care about people. Burnside talks more about policy than about precepts, and reveals more about her own prejudices than her opponents’.

As we have argued here, one can understand climate change as a problem that needs addressing without believing that the problems stand as moral imperatives that demand special form of politics. We could – hypothetically – for instance, argue that an Arctic free from summer sea ice is, while in some senses regrettable, perhaps a price worth paying for the development that might cause it. We could, again hypothetically, emphasise that development offers the people who are most vulnerable to climate a better hope of both prosperity and survival than does a ‘sustainable’ lifestyle.

These propositions are, however, anathema to almost the entire green movement, who will put either the worst-case scenario or the precautionary principle in the way of such a moral calculation.

This is because there is a fundamental idea operating within environmentalism which is incompatible with humanism. It proposes that our principle relationship is not with each other, but with the natural world. Accordingly, ‘duty to each other’ exists principally as a duty to the planet, and ‘societal cohesiveness’ comes from without humanity, being predicated on a sustainable relationship with the natural world. In other words, human relationships are – and must be – mediated by the ‘environment’. These precepts operate prior to the humanist ethic that Burnside attempts to claim for the green movement: humanism is delimited by environmentalism. A failure to recognise these environmental precepts is, according to environmentalists, equivalent to wanting to destroy humanity in an environmental catastrophe.

There is no such thing as eco-humanism, nor progressive environmentalism. Environmentalism is simply anti-human by degree – the extent to which any variant of environmentalism is anti-human is the extent to which it subjects humans to environmental ‘ethics’.

Any notion which doesn’t take the possibility of global catastrophe for granted is excluded from the discussion, and so the discussion about how to organise our lives is premised on the idea that if we don’t recognise environmental imperatives, we will necessarily create Thermageddon. The problem with any such calculation is that its conclusion is its premise. It exists prior to the scientific investigation of our influence on the climate, and it exists prior to the discussion about how human society will in turn be influenced by that change, and how we ought to respond.

Has Climate Porn Already Tipped?

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

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

It’s one that I disagree with.

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

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

So is Richard right that global warming hysteria has diminished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrote Monbiot, his brother in despair:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Black continues…

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

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

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

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

Folie à Deux

Reading it is enough to make you want to stop breathing…

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

So writes writer, environmentalist and poet, former editor of The Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth to his friend, ally, and comrade in misery, George Mon-and-on-and-on-biot. The two are discussing the question ‘Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse?’ Their exchange is printed in the Guardian.

The subtitle sets the terms of the debate between these two apocalyptic nutcases.

The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth. No, counters George Monbiot – we can’t let billions perish

Kingsnorth, who curiously shares his name with the site of the site of recent Climate Camp protests, recites a familiar litany – we are going to hell in a fossil-fuel-and-capitalism-powered handcart, and the human race is just to stupid to notice or care, and it will be a good thing when billions of us are dead, because those who remain will have learned a lesson. Like the Rapture, but for Gaia-worshippers.

What the graphs show, says Kingsnorth, is that ‘a rapacious human economy [is] bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos’. ‘…all of these trends continue to get rapidly worse… there is a serious crash on the way… the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it…’ There is no way out of this, Kingsnorth believes.

[we are] wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in “progress”, as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.

This is an illusion, he says, it is ‘denial’. It’s curious to see the word ‘denial’ being applied to our greenest greens: those who embrace wholeheartedly both the sustainability agenda, and the apocalyptic prophecies that underpin it.

The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What do you get? We are starting to find out.

It is also a surprise to find out that those who have so far embraced environmentalism are labouring under the ‘myth of human exceptionalism’. And if this naked catastrophism wasn’t so utterly dispiriting, it would be funny that Kingsnorth complains about a ‘deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”’. After all, what is it that Kingsnorth expresses, if it’s not a ‘deeply embedded attitude to nature’ of his own, and of the culture that environmentalism has created for itself? Indeed, the culture that he and Monbiot both want to create is precisely a culture in which nature is central to everything.

Here at Climate Resistance, we are fans of human exceptionalism. And we don’t think it’s a myth. Our ability even to consider the concept of human exceptionalism makes us distinct from all other things. Kingsnorth sees the world very, very differently:

… what we are really trying to save, as we scrabble around planting turbines on mountains and shouting at ministers, is not the planet but our attachment to the western material culture, which we cannot imagine living without.

The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.

Human exceptionalism, in this view, is a notion which has been debunked. Debunked, that is, by the looming apocalypse. The inevitable apocalypse. The one that hasn’t happened yet, but it will, according to Kingsnorth. Soon. Ish. He hopes. And there’s no point hankering after it, because we’re doomed.

But abandoning a human-centric view of the world creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we reduce humanity to the moral equivalent of any bug, slug, mouse or microbe, we prevent ourselves from planning according to our own interests. We therefore submit to the whims of nature that have always killed humans through famine, drought, and disease, etc, etc. What makes Kingsnorth’s fantasy different to a UFO cultist’s is that he expects the whole world to join his suicide pact, not just a small band of ‘us’, the chosen ones, against the ‘them’.

George replies…

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

Here’s some news… George Monbiot thinks he has been ‘professionally optimistic’! When?! When has Monbiot been optimistic? Ever? As we have pointed out in many posts, George is incapable of optimism, because what he is responding to is not the external world, or rather anything that occurs in the real world, but his own confusion about his place in it. It fails to obey his will, and he doesn’t really understand why, and like a small child, cannot make a distinction between his failure to assert his will, and the end of the world. Environmentalism projects its own crises into the atmosphere. When, recently, supermarket giant, Tescos began the process of setting up in the town of Monbiot’s home, Machynlleth in Wales, he imagined himself in ‘the last small corner of Gaul still holding out against the Romans’. This was, in his view, a ‘struggle for democracy’. Nevermind that, in fact, it seems that more people are in favour of the supermarket, than against.

It get’s funnier, because Monbiot then scolds Kingsnorth for his apparent desire for apocalypse.

I detect in your writings, and in the conversations we have had, an attraction towards – almost a yearning for – this apocalypse, a sense that you see it as a cleansing fire that will rid the world of a diseased society. If this is your view, I do not share it.

But without the apocalypse, Monbiot’s entire view of the world crumbles. This he shares with Kingsnorth absolutely. Indeed, last year he gave the title ‘Bring on the Apocalypse’ to a collection of his writings. The message is the same as any other eco-poseur’s: if you don’t do what I say, the world will end, and your children will die. If there is no looming apocalypse, what would Monbiot write about? He says he wants to avoid the apocalypse, but anyone who says it might not be inevitable he calls a ‘denier’, or otherwise hypnotised by deniers. He says he wants to save people, but without the prospect of an imminent global catastrophe, how would he illustrate his unpleasant narrative? The difference between the roles that apocalypse plays in Monbiot’s and Kingsnorth’s account of the future is paper-thin, and academic. They are expressions of the same symptom. For all that their ‘debate’ matters, they might as well be arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Seemingly in an attempt to distance himself from Kingsnorth’s style of apocalyptic propheising, but failing comprehensively, Monbiot continues…

However hard we fall, we will recover sufficiently to land another hammer blow on the biosphere. We will continue to do so until there is so little left that even Homo sapiens can no longer survive. This is the ecological destiny of a species possessed of outstanding intelligence, opposable thumbs and an ability to interpret and exploit almost every possible resource – in the absence of political restraint.

And there’s the rub. Monbiot claims that it is objective fact, issued by an unchallengeable scientific consensus that demands ‘political restraint’, but in reality, it is the desire for some kind of political restraint which is prior to the search for any evidence that may putatively support it.

That is to say that the desire is to limit the expression of humanity, because it is an evil thing that will inevitably cause the destruction of the world. Here, again, Monbiot confuses his own disorientation with the entire human race’s. While it may be sensibly argued that politics throughout the world is suffering from a lack of direction (it is what we argue, after all), Monbiot only recognises this as a ‘lack of restraint’, rather than having some other cause. The purposelessness of today’s politics aims for nothing in particular, except for some kind of security: the War on Terror, pandemics, obesity and demographic time-bombs, climate change, and a raft of disasters await us, and become the issues around which our future is organised simply because today’s politicians cannot really conceive of any other basis for their functions. There is no better future. Monbiot sees environmentalism as a remedy to, rather than a symptom of this problem.

Contemplating the politics of the post-apocalyptic world, Monbiot foresees that

survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory.

Rather than preparing for the apocalypse, we ought to be trying to stop it

However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive.

If Monbiot recognises that the conditions of the post-apocalyptic world give rise to certain politics, why is it that he’s unable to recognise that creating a politics that anticipates the apocalypse equally gives rise to politics of the same order? Does Monbiot really believe that ‘downsizing the global economy’ won’t create brutal monopolies? Does he really believe that you can take just the excesses of contemporary life away from people, and that you can do so without force, violence, and oppression? Does he really think that people will embrace feudal modes of existence willingly? And as for political accountability, how does he think protests and the civil disobedience he is so fond of will be organised, and met by the authorities, in a world in which transport is denied, and political authority is legitimised on the basis that “the planet needs saving”? You wouldn’t be able to get to the protest. A green tyranny doesn’t need to oppress the population through violence. It just deprives them of the means to organise themselves. Things like petrol. But if it came to it, once you were there, protesters could be dealt with as any dangerous ‘denier’ – a heretic, no less – has been in history. There can be no ‘ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy’. It is not a machine.

Recognising that Monbiot’s vision of ordered retrogression is unlikely, but failing to recognise that Monbiot is talking about de-industrialisation, Kingsnorth says:

You have convinced yourself that there are only two possible futures available to humanity. One we might call Liberal Capitalist Democracy 2.0. Clearly your preferred option, this is much like the world we live in now, only with fossil fuels replaced by solar panels; governments and corporations held to account by active citizens; and growth somehow cast aside in favour of a “steady state economy”.

The other we might call McCarthy world, from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – which is set in an impossibly hideous post-apocalyptic world, where everything is dead but humans, who are reduced to eating children. Not long ago you suggested in a column that such a future could await us if we didn’t continue “the fight”.

We wrote about Monbiot’s reading of McCarthy’s novel back at the end of 2007. This story, said Monbiot, ‘shines a cold light on the dreadful consequences of our universal apathy’. Again, it was humanity’s shortcomings that created the necessity of controlling human impulses. He’d been at a road protest because apathetic humans were building a road. And it was all Jeremy Clarkson’s fault. The presenter of flagship BBC program Top Gear wasn’t taking his environmental responsibilities seriously. ‘Who will persuade us to act?’, he wondered. Not him. And not Kingsnorth, who seems to relish the coming end-of-days.

We face what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a “long descent”: a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter that will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure “some good will come” from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction. […] But what comes next doesn’t have to be McCarthyworld. Fear is a poor guide to the future.

That’s right, folks, the deaths of billions of people is nothing to be feared, it is just a necessary step to a better future. In a rare moment of sanity (only by contrast) Monbiot is outraged that Kingsnorth is suggesting that we might ‘do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation’. The ‘macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth’, he says. It’s a curious argument. Who could possibly be afraid of endless growth? It implies a distinctly non-terminal world. What he means by ‘endless growth’, however, is nothing of the kind, but anything which doesn’t resonate with the ‘downsizing of the global economy’ that he wishes for. This is, as we have observed in the past, based on the principle that any growth must ultimately be unsustainable, because the earth is finite, and at some point, growth will outgrow its environs. It’s a spurious argument that rests on many bogus claims, but principally states that because a problem may exist in the future, we ought not to continue. Best stay in the caves. Best remain as peasants. Best to not see what happens if we convert the production of steam into movement.

For a moment, it looks like Monbiot might say something sensible. But this is a competition to see who can hate humanity the most…

Anyone apprised of the palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.

Gosh. So what’s worth saving? At the same time as holding us to be equivalent to toxic weaponry, we are, paradoxically worth saving. And there’s only one way to do it.

[A] de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse.

Only by neutering ourselves, and by enforcing restraint and environmental obedience can our species be locked into a sustainable pattern of behaviour, and saved.

The debate rages on. Kingsnorth replies, complaining that ‘my lack of fighting spirit sees me accused of complicity in mass death’, and that Monbiot’s argument is ‘designed to make me look like a heartless fascist’. Surely not…

Civilisations live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that humanity is separate from something called “nature”, which is a “resource” for our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they tell us that we are in control. […]

I think our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, while creating new myths that put humanity in its proper place. Recently I co-founded a new initiative, the Dark Mountain Project, which aims to help do that. It won’t save the world, but it might help us think about how to live through a hard century. You’d be welcome to join us.

Where Monbiot wanted a human race tamed and forced into obedience by the prospect of Gaia’s waiting wrath, Kingsnorth wants to create a culture from the myths upwards, that puts it in its place while Mother Nature’s anger is visited upon us with poetry, art, singing and clapping. Seriously. Check out his site.  It intends to create ‘a new literary movement for an age of global disruption’ as the project’s co-founder, Dougald Hine explains in this video.

So, Hine thinks his project is about ‘finding a new optimism’. The starting point for this ‘new optimism’ are their ‘eight principles of uncivilisation‘.  Several of these ‘principles’ (they really ought to be ‘unprinciples’) stick out.

3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.

7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.

This is grandiose posturing. This is given away by the final (un)principle: ‘Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.’ This ought to be seen as a rather frank statement of aimlessness; they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t know how to get there, other than by making up stories that ‘weave’ the ‘reality’ that they experience. They refuse to ‘lose ourselves in the elaboration of our theories’. Well, that’s convenient, because they are incoherent and inconsistent. They don’t even seem able to wash their hands. And why would you, if you didn’t believe in the centrality of humanity and progress?

What kind of optimism is this going to achieve? We don’t think it can find any. And, indeed, this search for optimism looks more like utter nihilism, these principles being so many self-indulgent whines about their authors’ sense of disorientation. Environmentalism projects its own anxieties onto the world.

Monbiot’s closing comments to their discussion are barely worth looking at, so underwhelming is his reply. There is no defence of progress. There is no defence of humanity. There is not even any defence of conventional optimism. Because, as ever, George’s vision is trapped between apocalypse and survival that means he can only make an argument that is premised on a belittling of humanity. This is the logic of miserable nihilism in search of meaning. It is just as incoherent as Kingsnorth’s. In both arguments, the catastrophes that the writers say we face are not simply the result of unforeseen consequences of our using our abilities, for instance, that industrial society has created a problem – climate change – that need to be addressed one way or another. Instead, climate change is held as conclusive proof of our lust, greed, and stupidity and that they need to be contained, either through legislation, or through mythology. The difference is steep. While on the one hand, Monbiot claims to have virtually the entire climate science community behind him and his argument (that is the basis on which he has agreed to debate climate sceptic, Prof. Ian Plimer) this ‘science’ isn’t being used by Monbiot to make a scientific argument about the necessity of changing our industrial practices – a view with which many scientists no doubt agree – but instead is being used to make arguments about human nature itself. This is the perspective which is prior to the science that is used to support it. It is the ethics and politics of environmentalism.

The very graphs on which Kingsnorth premised his arguments – the ones which spelled out the inevitability of the apocalypse to him – are the story which narrates his myths about human unexceptionalism and uncentrality, and his desire for uncivilisation. Yet if humans aren’t exceptional, these graphs cannot stand for anything. The science which produced them, right or wrong, produced the machines which caused the problem they have seemingly identified. Likewise, the same science which Monbiot claims has identified the inevitable catastrophe that looms over us was produced by the desire for better lives that Monbiot says we simply can’t have. Kingsnorth and Monbiot only want so much science. Science as the expression of human exceptionality is used to demonstrate the non-exceptionality of humans. Science as the means by which we made our lives better is used to demonstrate the dangerous folly of living better lives. The ethics, politics and science of Monbiot and the literature movement that Kingsnorth hopes to create, if they ever flourish, (as much as anything so negative can ‘flourish’) will create an era in human history that will be called ‘the redarkenment’, and the ‘unnaissance’.

H/T: Rob L. and James H.

The Age of the Age of Stupid

It is telling that parts of the environmental movement attempt to ram home their message by telling the rest of the world that they are stupid for not getting it.

As we have shown here on Climate Resistance, some argue that psychological mechanisms might be to blame for our failure to respond to climate change, and devise techniques that might ‘encourage’ us to behave ‘responsibly’. Others claim that the feckless public’s scepticism and denial are the result of conspiracies to distort science’s message, or that a ‘balance’ of views in the media gives a credibility to false ideas. Some even say that the issue of climate change is just too serious and big an issue for democracy to cope with – we vote selfishly, and our sinful minds cannot possibly understand the enormity of the tragedy that we are making. What fools we are.

But the last thing those who make such claims ever look at to explain their failure is their own argument. So who are they calling stupid?

All of us, it seems. One such case is ‘The Age of Stupid’ – a film that points its big pointy finger at the people of the world, and damns them for their stupidity.

Franny Armstrong, the director of the film, was at the Hay Festival last weekend, sharing the stage with climate change minister, Ed Miliband. As the Guardian’s James Randerson reports:

What we saw on stage was a clash between the absolutism of the single-minded campaigner and the art of realpolitik. For Armstrong the situation is clear. Already, 150,000 people are dying each year as a result of human-caused climate change – according to the World Health Organisation – so the consumerist growth model that has created the problem has to go.

But, countered Miliband, that would deny developing countries like China and India their chance to grow their economies. “If you say to them look, we’ve had this growth model for 50 years or whatever it is but now we’ve discovered it’s a real problem and you can’t carry on growing, there’s no way to can persuade them to be part of a global agreement,” he said.

Here is what they said to each other, according to the Guardian’s podcast coverage of the festival:

MILIBAND: Even after the recession, even after putting a price on carbon, passenger demand in the UK is expected to double. Now your position says, err…

ARMSTRONG: Ninety-five per cent cut in flights by 2020.

MILIBAND: You’d like a ninety-five per cent cut in flights?

ARMSTRONG: Yep. No, the science… It doesn’t matter what I’d like… If we’re going to prevent runaway climate change, which is the goal. Then ninety-five percent cut in flights, yeah. But I think what you said is absolutely key. Like it was only one generation ago, perhaps two [laughs] that err, flying was a magical once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’d look forward to. You know, you’d save up, and you’d go, you know, once a decade. That’s what we’re talking about, everybody in the room could fly about once a decade. And then wed be back to being a magical experience and what’s wrong with that? I think we have to look at the level of sacrifice, don’t we, because what we’re saying is you think the British people wouldn’t agree to sacrifice [laughs] erm, their right to go on holiday as many times as they… fly, as many times as they want to.

MILIBAND: But…

ARMSTRONG: Hang on, let me finish. But in order… We’re therefore gonna ask other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives. I.E. the hundred and fifty thousand people who are already dying from climate change every year, according to the World Health Organisation.

MILIBAND: I’m not saying that, come on. I’m not saying that.

ARMSTRONG: No but you are. One follows the other.

This exchange epitomises the climate ‘debate’ in a number of ways.

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

When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.

But the environmental movement cannot muster it. Too few people – only a small number of protesters and the UK establishment, it seems – are interested in the subject at all. Nonetheless, Miliband has been instrumental in driving forward the environmental agenda, which forms a substantial part of the government’s own legislation. Because it does suit the political establishment, it has proceeded without any real parliamentary scrutiny – virtually all MPs, with only a few exceptions, are entirely uncritical of anything ‘green’ – and without environmentalism being tested at the ballot box. This democratic oversight is overcome by deferring many of the parameters of our environmental strategy to an unaccountable, unelected panel – the Climate Change Committee, and of course, to the Stern Report, and to the IPCC; each papering over the nuances, doubt, uncertainties and scientific caution of the previous.

The second is the way Armstrong hides her naked prejudice behind science. It’s not her that wants a 95 per cent cut in flights, it’s science. It has spoken to her. But wherever Armstrong got her claim that a 95 per cent cut in flights is necessary to avoid ‘runaway climate change’ and the deaths of 150,000 people, it was not from scientific literature, and it was not from scientists. It’s an argument that has been assembled from bits of science, and strung together like a Frankenstein monster – a highly dubious form of inductive reasoning which allows her to claim that Miliband is making an argument for ‘other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives’. Her chain of reasoning is that i) flights cause CO2, ii) CO2 causes global warming, iii) which will cause runaway climate change, iv) which kills people – the WHO says so, v) these are mostly poor people in other countries. There is no sense of proportion at any stage of this form of reasoning. There is no attention given to the caveats and caution or scope that the original research – if indeed it was research – presented.

This is a major problem for Armstrong if she wants to persuade anybody who isn’t stupid. Anyone who isn’t stupid is able to see for themselves, with just a little research, how her argument stacks up, or doesn’t.

The statistic of 150,000 climate change deaths is from the WHO’s The World Health Report 2002, page 72 of which says:

Climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, 6% of malaria in some middle income countries and 7% of dengue fever in some industrialized countries. In total, the attributable mortality was 154 000 (0.3%) deaths and the attributable burden was 5.5 million (0.4%) DALYs. About 46% this burden occurred in SEAR-D, 23% in AFR-E and a further 14% in EMR-D.

‘Estimated’. There is no footnote explaining the method by which the estimate was achieved. for that, we need to look to press releases. This one, from Reuters, via commondreams.org:

The book estimated climate change was to blame for 2.4 percent of cases of diarrhoea because, Campbell-Lendrum said, the heat would exacerbate bacterial contamination of food.

Climate change was also behind two percent of all cases of malaria, because increased rainfall created new breeding grounds for mosquitoes which carry the disease, he said.

There is a logical problem here with using a model to attribute deaths from cause A to ultimate cause B. By virtue of being directly caused by A, we cannot say empirically, that B was responsible for any particular death. The relationship between the cause of climate change, and an Nth order effect of climate change is theoretical, not empirical, and is itself based on a speculative chain of reasoning which is unlikely to carry much necessity. People who were killed by malaria, which was caused by an increased rainfall, which was caused by climate change, which was caused by somebody driving a 4×4 in South London, were killed, first and foremost, by malaria. The relationship between the ultimate cause (CO2) and ultimate effect (150,000 deaths from disease) – which we have to take at face value, because the WHO have decided not to tell us how it was established – is contingent: things could have happened otherwise. For instance, we might have abolished malaria and dengue fever, and the developing world might have been more developed such that more people had fridges and freezers, and medicine – very simple medicine, as it happens – to deal with diarrhoea. If that had happened – and it’s not a stretch of the imagination – there would have been no deaths from climate change. So why campaign for less cars, rather than more fridges and more medicine?

But let’s be charitable to the WHO and their researchers, for a moment. Perhaps there is a value in estimating the influence of climate changes on disease, based on assumptions. It might open up some discussion about strategies that might be followed to confront malaria, and where investments might be best made. Theoretical models aren’t in themselves, ‘bad’, and can be useful to testing existing knowledge, perhaps between different disciplines. But, look, these researchers aren’t as interested in the 98% of malaria cases which aren’t ’caused’ by climate change as the 2% that they assume is caused by climate change.

Even according to WHO’s own statistics, climate change is just about the least pressing problem for anyone in the developing world. Even being overweight or physically inactive in regions where we typically understand life to be characterised by scarcity of food, and hard physical labour are each bigger problems than climate change. The WHO table attributes 404,418 deaths in the high-mortality developing world to being overweight, nearly three times as many as it claims die from climate change (144,714). That’s nothing, of course, compared to the problem of being undernourished, which kills 5,610,300 – 38 times as many as climate change. Yet, arguably it is a much much easier problem to solve, at face value, than climate change. Moreover, the likes of Armstrong repeat the claim that ‘climate change is the biggest problem facing mankind’, and that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. Is this really the picture that emerges from this research?

To read the oft-quoted headlines that the WHO’s report had generated since being published in 2002, you’d have thought so.

A Google search for 150000 deaths climate change WHO yields 150,000 search results. Perhaps the least interesting statistic that the WHO generated… indeed, the item nearly at the bottom of the table… is what generated the largest number of headlines.

More to the point, whereas it is relatively easy to measure the number of deaths attributed to a first-order cause, such as malaria, there have been no deaths anywhere in the world that can be directly attributable to climate change. Yet even establishing how many people die from malaria is fraught with complications. They aren’t all counted. None of the statistics represented by the WHO’s research are empirical ‘facts’. They are all the result of projections, estimations, and assumptions, calculated from known data of varying quality.

But the result of the theoretical model is treated outside the scope of the study as an empirical result. It is presented as a fact that 150,000 people die a year from climate change. It is Armstrong’s starting point. Without it, she wouldn’t have a case. Or at least she wouldn’t have had one until late last week. Because that’s when Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum launched its much-publicised report (pdf) revealing that it’s actually 300,000 people per year dying as a result of climate change.

The Guardian jumped on it, naturally, calling on George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and John Vidal to hit its significance home. Of those, only Vidal mentioned the highly speculative nature of the estimate. Lynas was the silliest:

These numbers are vitally important, because they provide a direct evidence-based link between culpability – those responsible for the emissions driving climate change – and victimhood, those who are suffering the consequences, including losing their lives […] The legal implications are analogous to those faced by the tobacco industry once evidence solidified about the links between smoking and cancer. Shareholders and investors in fossil fuels need to be aware that they now face a liability that will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars – their products are killing people, and it is only a matter of time before the wheels of international justice begin to turn.

Just like Franny Armstrong, Lynas grasps at the statistics as objective support for his politics. In his case it’s that those dirty oil companies are guilty of crimes against humanity and that he now sees a way to quantify those crimes. Of course, it’s pure fantasy. All one would have to do to counter his case would be to put together a report ‘estimating’ the number of lives saved each year by the burning of fossil fuels – through the provision of emergency services, heating, nutrition etc etc. But there’s the rub. The WHO isn’t going to carry out such a study. Just as it’s not going to carry out a study that comes up with a figure for the number of deaths caused by a stable climate. And nor is any celebrity diplomat with a charity at his disposal and connections at the highest level. As we say quite often, the politics is prior to the science. The WHO and Kofi Annan are responding to a hunger for statistics that confirm that climate change is real, happening and that something has to be done. Forget the starving millions, there are the appetites of directionless journalists, politicians, NGOs and diplomats to satisfy. Not to mention intergovernmental organisations such as the WHO itself. Neither the WHO nor the GHF have much to go on, of course, as they are quite prepared to admit in their respective reports. They do the best they can to cobble something together, shrouding their findings in caveats, qualifications, provisos and caution. But once the figures are out there, those caveats, qualifications, provisos and caution can be forgotten about. The job is done. Anyone is free to use these stats as they like. WHO won’t complain. Nor will Kofi Annan.

That’s the trouble with political consensuses. They are consensual. The only ones willing to challenge them are by definition outside of the consensus. And if you’re outside the political consensus, you’re a denier. And if you’re a denier, you can’t be trusted. Your money is corrupting. Your challenges can be written off as politically motivated. You can be ignored.

So, while the existence of a political consensus on climate change means that anyone who does not sign up to it is wrong by definition, the only ones who can possibly challenge that consensus are those who do not sign up to it. And indeed, even to try and challenge the consensus is evidence that one sits outside it and is, therefore, guilty of denialism.

And meanwhile, Lynas can demand that climate change must take precedence over all of the other problems out there that are ‘worse for the poor’ (which he does) – indeed, that are worse for the poor than climate change, according to no less than the WHO itself – and still be a respected member of the political climate change community.

It all leaves us in a farcical situation in which it does not matter what one’s own personal interests are, just as long as they incline one towards the proper sort of political bias. So, while just about the only group likely to make a case for the historical benefits of fossil fuels is the oil industry – who cannot be trusted because they are the fossil fuel industry – the press and politicians are more than happy to swallow the GHF report despite the fact that much of the crucial data on which its 300,000 figure is based is provided by insurance giants Munich Re, when risk insurers have as much interest in generating fear of climate change as Exxon has in generating doubt. And despite the fact that Munich Re’s data is highly questionable.

In the heat of the climate battle, excited activists like Armstrong and Lynas have absorbed

the numerical product of assumptions as concrete, cold, objective, hard, solid and unchallengeable, necessary facts about the world. These nebulous and often spurious assertions are taken out of any context in which they can be seen in proportion, and become the foundation of moral reasoning. In this way, the likes of Armstrong and Lynas project superficially plausible, but fundamentally flawed statistics into the future to make statements about what is happening in the present. Hence, Armstrong tells Miliband that he’s asking other people to sacrifice their lives so that we can go on holiday.

We might say, ‘ho hum, it’s just a couple of eco-loons’, nobody’s listening. But Miliband – a senior UK politician – is listening. He’s made two appearances with Armstrong recently: first at the launch of her film, and now at the Hay festival, apparently in order to demonstrate the UK government’s commitment to the environmental agenda. Why else would he be there? Try getting a politician such as Miliband to debate with a climate change ‘denier’, let alone a ‘sceptic’, let alone someone who’s critical of the politics. He would run a mile. Instead, he poses on stages with eco-warriors.

Even when she’s clearly mistaken, and trying to embarrass him, Miliband cannot point out to Armstrong that she’s a lunatic. He can neither challenge, nor expose her bogus way of thinking about things. He can’t assure the audience that she’s making stuff up, or taking things out of proportion, or that ‘one thing’ really does not ‘follow the other’, as she claims. Far from demonstrating the shallowness of the ‘one thing following the other’ argument, he instead tells Armstrong, that, yes, people aren’t going to give up their flights, but that he’s happy to make them more expensive:

I’m saying that we have to achieve the scientific… the… the… the cuts in emissions that science demands of us. And that is very important. But… but I’m saying that flying is the most difficult thing to tackle, partly technologically, err, speaking. I am saying that the price of airline tickets will go up including in the United Kingdom. We… we’re… it’s part of our emissions trading scheme, which means there is a price on err carbon emissions from aviation from the first… for the first time. I’m saying actually domestic flights will get much less err frequent, people will do them much less, and you got to expand high speed rail and you’ve got to have a big change in the relation to err public transport. But I am also saying that as someone in the art of persuasion, it… you know, you have probably twenty per cent of people in this country who are deeply committed on climate change. Maybe forty per cent who are… sort of… think it’s kind of… you know… right to do something but aren’t particularly engaged in it. And then a whole group of other people. In the art of persuasion, I’m not convinced that saying to people in my constituency, who are able to do something, and go to places that their parents could not have dreamed of, that that’s all got to end overnight is realistic. Which is what you’re saying.

Is it conceivable that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has not heard the ‘150,000 deaths from climate change’ factoid before? Of course he has. Can he really not know what its limitations are, and what criticisms have been made of it? Of course he does. But it wouldn’t be expedient to start challenging the very people he is turning to in the hope that they, through their films and through fear-mongery, will create support, and therefore legitimacy, for the policies he has devised.

He must think we’re stupid.

Here’s some more Stupid factoid tennis between Armstrong and Miliband.

[youtube 1r29uVnKfaQ]

[youtube ixlPb1bP73A]

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.

Beware: Health Warnings

Speaking of self-fulfilling prophecies, which we often are, Stu has a feature in today’s FT magazine about the negative impacts on our health of precautionary health advice:

Worried Sick
What if health warnings could make us ill? Actually, they can – it’s called the “nocebo effect” and there’s a lot of it about

It’s mostly about medical advice, but it also touches on how encouraging negative expectations about the state of the planet can be asking for trouble:

Even non-specific worries about the state of the world in general can be enough to make us ill, according to research from the University of Auckland. Prior to a huge pesticide-spraying programme in New Zealand, people were asked about their attitudes towards new technologies and environmental threats. After the spraying, those who were most concerned about the health risks reported the greatest number of symptoms.

There’s an online version here.

Of course, in the case of environmentalism, the self-fulfilling prophecy is mediated more by politics than physiology – environmental politics creates conditions that leave us more vulnerable to environmental problems. Both, however, are responses to the same institutionalised, precautionary fear-mongering.

No Fire Without a Smokescreen

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

Climate change ‘fans Nepal fires’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Nepal has experienced an unusually dry winter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drizzles caused by climate change, perhaps?

Auntie's Tall Tale Of Daddy Long Legs

It’s always fun to trace the chain of Chinese whispers between primary research and scary news stories about the ravages of climate change. Many BBC science stories are particularly easy to trace back to source, based as they are on a single scientific paper, from which they are separated by only a single press release. But even when the whisper chain is a short one, there is plenty of room for the distortion of sobre science to alarmist headline, especially when the press release contains everything you need for the job. So it was with the BBC’s ‘Bid to aid daddy longlegs numbers’ published on Thursday:

Climate change is killing off cranefly and in turn threatening the survival of upland wild bird species that feed on them, RSPB Scotland has warned.

The Telegraph also reported the story:

Daddy longlegs decline could spell extinction for golden plover

So did the Daily Mail, which isn’t even supposed to believe in this new-fangled climate change business:

Warmer summers ‘killing off daddy long legs and beloved British birds’

And Science Daily:

Drop In Daddy Long Legs Is Devastating Bird Populations

All the stories drew entirely from a press release issued by RSPB Scotland, which they have simply condensed and bolted on their own introduction and headline. (Science Daily also spliced in an extra quote from a co-author of the research paper). Here’s the headline of the presser:

Warmer weather pummels plovers

Craneflies – better known in the UK, at least, as daddy longlegs – are gangly insects that appear en masse in temperate regions for a few weeks in spring, providing a bonanza food source for breeding birds and other predators. Judging by the news stories, climate change is killing them off by drying out the soil in which their larvae live, which is in turn killing off the birds that rely on them.

But according to the research paper, published in the journal Global Change Biology, it is far from clear that golden plovers are even declining, let alone being ‘killed off’, ‘pummeled’ or ‘devastated’, as shown in the paper’s Figure 5:

The data represent just a single, small population. But neither is there much evidence that golden plovers are undergoing a national, European or global decline. Lead author of the paper, Dr James Pearce-Higgins of RSPB Scotland, confirmed this when we spoke to him on the phone.

The population studied by Pearce-Higgins and his colleagues sits on the southern edge of the species’ range in the English Peak District. This was by design, in that the intention was to examine how global temperature rises might affect species distributions. While evidence is accumulating that many species expand their ranges northwards in response to a warming trend (in the Northern Hemisphere), evidence for predicted contractions at the southern limit of species’ ranges is sparse. But even in what might be expected to be a particularly sensitive population, there is no downward trend in plover numbers over the last 35 years, despite a local rise in mean August temperatures of 1.9C over that period.

That is not to say, however, that temperature rises are not having an effect on the population. Pearce-Higgins et al have developed a model that does seem to explain much of the variation in plover numbers over the 35-year period. The model integrates previous work by the group, which found that plover mortality rises in cold winters, with new data showing that high August temperatures kill off cranefly larvae leading to fewer adults emerging the following spring when the birds are feeding their chicks. So, rising temperatures are a double-edged sword for plovers. Mild winters increase survival, but hot summers reduce breeding success. The model suggests that there might have been a switch in the relative importance of these two effects in recent years, with spring food availability becoming a more important determinant than winter temperature of population size.

There remains, of course, a lot of unexplained variability in the system, and Pearce-Higgins is reticent to attribute any short-term population fluctuations to specific effects:

From about the mid-’90s to mid-2000s, when the time series stops, there’s actually – although we don’t put this in the paper – there’s actually a significant decline in golden plover numbers […] I guess I was being cautious really, in terms of attributing the decline to what’s going on, particularly as, if you look across the whole of the UK, there isn’t much evidence of a golden plover population decline, and I’m very well aware that lots of other factors are affecting their population […] If you take the trend from the mid-90s through to when we finish about 2005, there is a decline there, but obviously that’s an arbitrary cut-off.

So, all the news stories – and, indeed, the RSPB’s own press release – are wrong to suggest that climate change is reducing plover populations. While they all treat the issue in the present tense, as if golden plovers are being devastated by climate change in the here and now, the only evidence of population decline presented by paper comes from the application of the model to future population trends.

The researchers take the 1.9C local temperature rise over the past 35 years and extrapolate it over the next 100 years. The resulting rise of 5.2C above the 1971-2005 mean would, according to their model, result in a 96% chance of extinction of the population. A 1.9C local rise in August mean temperatures would seem very large, however, when global temperatures have increased by 1C over the past century, and it’s certainly much bigger than the rise in temperature experienced by central England over the same period.

The researchers also apply their model to a range of other temperature scenarios:

In other words, things have to get pretty warm before even a small population on the edge of the species’ range starts to feel the heat. And yet it is only the extrapolation of the 1.9C rise that makes it into the press release and, therefore, the news stories.

Not only have news reports confused current declines with possible declines in the future, but they deal only with an apparently unrepresentative worst-case scenario, and they apply data from a single population at the southern extremity of the species’ range to the species as a whole to announce that a species that isn’t even declining is being driven to extinction.

Given that all the news coverage of the paper was based almost verbatim on the press release, it is perhaps surprising that Pearce-Higgins is happy with how the RSPB presented the research:

I don’t think the press release is particularly misleading really

‘That’s the challenge’ he says,

to try to get across what is quite a complicated message, but with an important underlying message, in a way that is acceptable to the media, but that also does justice to the science.

Readers can make up their own minds whether the RSPB press release does justice to the science. But it certainly seems to have been acceptable to the media, who didn’t need to look any further to get their alarmist climate stories. One particular quote in the RSPB press release proved particularly attractive, being used by the BBC, Telegraph and Daily Mail. It’s from Pearce-Higgins:

This is the most worrying development that I have found in my scientific career to date.

Perhaps that’s what he means by the ‘important underlying message’.

The Great Danish Pastry Swindle

The climate conference in Copenhagen that ended this week produced a barrage of startling headlines, many of them from just one man.

On Tuesday, the Guardian’s junior climate alarmist, David Adam surprised us with an uncharacteristically non-doom-laden article:

Greenland ice tipping point ‘further off than thought’

The giant Greenland ice sheet may be more resistant to temperature rise than experts realised. The finding gives hope that the worst impacts of global warming, such as the devastating floods depicted in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, could yet be avoided.

That evening, David’s mood soured:

Global warming may trigger carbon ‘time bomb’, scientist warns

Even modest amounts of global warming could trigger a carbon “time bomb” and release massive amounts of greenhouse gases from frozen Arctic soils, a new study has warned.

By Wednesday, David’s gloom reached unprecedented levels:

Caught on camera: The Greenland tunnels that could speed ice melt

The Greenland ice sheet is riddled with channels that could quicken ice loss and speed sea level rise, a new study has revealed.

That afternoon, David’s gloom was worse than previously thought:

Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts

Global sea levels could rise much higher this century than previously projected, raising the threat level for millions of people who live in low-lying areas, new research suggests. Scientists at a climate change summit in Copenhagen say changes in the polar ice sheets could raise sea levels by a metre or more by 2100. The implications could be severe.

On Thursday, David’s gloom exceeded even the worst projections.

Severe global warming will render half of world’s inhabited areas unliveable, expert warns

Severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in, a US scientist warned today.

By that afternoon, things had passed a tipping point:

Europe ‘will be hit by severe drought’ without urgent action on emissions

Europe will be struck by a series of severe droughts that will make life “hell” for hundreds of millions of people unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, a new study shows. … Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, Greece and numerous other countries would be turned to semi-desert as climate change turned off their rainfall… Asked what life would be like there, Warren said: “Hell, I should think. It is incomprehensible to imagine adapting to that level of drought.”

Adam operates on the principal of one article per scientific paper. We’ve mentioned this ‘tyranny of the news peg’ before. It reduces the scientific process to a rolling news service devoid of context and analysis, allowing Adam to report, on consecutive days, that Greenland ice melt is, respectively, less and more imminent than previously thought. It is as if scientific truth equals the sum of all the papers produced on a scientific subject divided by their number, and that for truth and democracy to triumph, he just has to precis a sample of them, and distribute them between the categories of ‘worse…’ or ‘better than previously thought’, so that our minds can be made up by the law of averages. But if he does see his role as a passive conduit for information, he misunderstands both the workings and the function of both science and journalism.

A further caution that Adam throws to the wind is that much of the new research he reports on will not yet have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Conferences are like that. They are a platform for scientists to present more tentative results, hypotheses and interpretations. We could find no sign in the literature of any of the studies Adam mentions. And many of them will not make it through the review process, or will only do so having been revised beyond recognition in terms of their scientific and/or political content.

Of the hundreds of papers that were presented at the conference – many of them in poster sessions [PDF] – Adam has selected just a tiny handful: the most salacious, sensational, and terrifying (or that can be billed as such) at the expense of investigating the nuances to the arguments about what is or isn’t true, and what to do about it, and presented this highly polarised perspective as an account of what ‘science says’.

To pluck just one of Adam’s stories from the pile, on the Thursday he was claiming that ‘severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in’ and that ‘people will not be able to adapt to a much warmer climate as well as previously thought’. The story was based on a paper presented by Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, who adds human physiology into the climate models to suggest that ‘physiological limits of the human body will begin to render places impossible to support human life if the average global temperature rises by 7C on pre-industrial levels’. While predictions about the physiological constraints on our ability to tolerate high temperatures might be very useful, in itself, it says nothing about our ability to inhabit these places – and even less about our ability to ‘adapt to a much warmer climate’. After all, here in Northern Europe we wouldn’t survive the winter if we didn’t have homes to go to. We don’t know whether Sherwood made these claims, or if they are Adam’s own original contribution to ‘the science’, but either way it demonstrates a complete failure to scrutinise and question what are preliminary research findings.

By Friday, David had decided to speak for scientists on the Guardian’s podcast.

Climate change warning: ‘We’re sick of having our messages lost in political noise’

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

We have to take David’s word for it that he wasn’t one of those people losing the ‘carefully constructed messages’ in the political noise. We’ve said it before, the likes of David Adam, who aren’t scientists and clearly have a lot of sympathy with environmentalism, like environmentalists, don’t recognise their own noise as political. It is curious that none of the 2,500 attendees – natural scientists, social scientists, activists, dignitaries, corporates and journalists – had lost sufficient patience to go on the record to evince their frustration and impatience, and the only people he can get to confirm his message are Nicholas Stern and Rajendra Pachauri – neither of them climate scientists.

One climate scientist who does make a distinction between science and political noise is Professor Mike Hulme. Writing on Roger Pielke Jr’s Prometheus blog, Hulme wonders about the kind of ‘action’ that Adam was calling for on behalf of scientists:

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

David Adam might want to reflect on his own words more carefully. Perhaps the frustrated scientists he was taking evidence from were talking more about him, than to him. Hulme continues:

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

These six statements were issued after the conference by its organisers. Clearly they moved David Adam, but not Mike Hulme, who points out that the authors are not qualified to speak for the conference as a whole, and that no synthesis was produced, and nor was the conference capable of producing a synthesis.

It therefore seems problematic to me when such lively, well-informed and yet largely unresolved debates among a substantial cohort of the world’s climate change researchers gets reduced to six key messages, messages that on the one hand carry the aura of urgency, precision and scientific authority – ‘there is no excuse for inaction’ – and yet at the same time remain so imprecise as to resolve nothing in political terms.

It’s worth reading Mike Hulme’s post in full, rather than reading snippets that we’ve borrowed in order to illustrate David Adam’s ridiculous alarmism.

Hulme qualifies as neither a ‘sceptic’ nor a ‘denier’, and sensibly advises that science and politics are not the same thing. This nuanced argument is lost on David Adam. The problem is that throughout his prose is the theme that the images he presents and studies he cites are instructive… ‘we have to act, and we have to act now’. This urgency is also the theme of so many climate activists, politicians and commentators.

Adam’s alarm is premature, and it stems from an expectation of science that it simply cannot live up to. As Hulme puts it:

A gathering of scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change. But then why should it? All that can be told – and certainly should be told – is that climate change brings new and changed risks, that these risks can have a range of significant implications under different conditions, that there is an array of political considerations to be taken into account when judging what needs to be done, and there are a portfolio of powerful, but somewhat untested, policy measures that could be tried.

The rest is all politics. And we should let politics decide without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity.

It is striking that while – judging by his podcast – Adam seems to have picked up on the frustrations expressed by certain scientists about the lack of nuance, he hasn’t the faintest clue what it means. He hears murmurings about the messy overlap between science and politics, and yet seems so immersed in his model of the world as one that will be the death of us all that he doesn’t know what to do with that information. He ends up interpreting the frustration about lack of nuances as a signal that everything should be blacker and whiter – as if the nuance that has been lost from the debate is that we are all going to die. Adam wants science to settle the political debate, and he wants it now

And here is where we think Hulme’s otherwise excellent observations stop short. He doesn’t attempt to explain why politicians, activists and journalists like Adam have such expectations of science.

As we have argued previously, the dynamic driving the climate debate is less about what has emerged from climate science, and more about what appear to be political agendas. As Hulme observes, in many instances, politics is prior to science in the debate. But it might be truer to say that it is a lack of politics that is prior to the science. Science – or rather images of catastrophe given scientific credibility – fills the void. It re-orientates the disoriented, gives moral purpose in a world beset far less by climate problems than moral relativism, and gives political significance to causes that have long lacked rebels.

No field of science is immune to being used to fill politics-shaped holes. Science is seen less as a valuable tool with which to improve humanity’s lot and open our minds, and becoming a blunt instrument with which to beat the opposition. Campaigners on all sides of abortion debates increasingly fall back on science to make their moral case. The fact of evolution by natural selection has become almost synonymous with atheism. Depending on who you talk to, genetic technologies will feed the world or turn it to grey sludge. But it is environmental science – and its resonance with our sense of futility – that has gained by far the most political purchase.

David Adam’s work typifies this symptom. Being able only to see the world through the prism of climate change represents a failure to sustain a coherent analysis and a lack of confidence in even his own subjectivity – hence appeals to scientific authority. For Adam, climate change distinguishes right from wrong, left from right, good from bad. Just as each major UK political party has absorbed environmentalism into its manifesto, so too have journalists used it to inform the entirety of their own perspective on the world. This limited form of discourse is not about engagement with or criticism of the decision-making processes and the direction of society, it is about causal inevitabilities and moral imperatives issued by ‘the science’. ‘Science says…’.

The result is politics, ethics, democracy stripped entirely of their human meaning. Climate change rescues mediocrity and intellectual poverty from obscurity, and puts them centre stage, dressed as a super-heroes. As Adam shows, writing ‘worse than previously thought’ often enough turns you into a full time employee of the Guardian, and turns climatology into ethical and political science. If climate change didn’t generate moral imperatives, it would leave room for debate. And debate is for the ‘deniers’, who want to profit from the end of the world, or something.

In his most recent article, Adam entirely uncritically quotes the economist (and not climate scientist) Nick Stern:

Speaking after giving a keynote speech, Stern said he feared that politicians had not grasped the seriousness of the crisis. “Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. Looking back, the Stern review underestimated the risks and underestimated the damage from inaction.”

Just a few decades ago, World Bank economists, even ex-world bank economists (such as Stern) were just about the epitome of evil for radicals, liberals, and leftists. The World Bank served Western corporate interests at the expense of developing nations. Today, Stern is celebrated by radicals, liberals and lefties, while he advances the climate change cause, and positions himself to take financial advantage of the carbon markets created by the regulations that he was instrumental in devising, which foist ‘sustainability’ on both the developed and developing world. Stern knows full well that governments have not failed to act. His own government, for example, has committed the UK to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, and the US is on course to do the same.

With all countries apparently committed to ‘action’ on climate change, the rhetorical escalation emerging at this conference is perhaps puzzling. What country is standing against an agreement at the next climate talks in Copenhagen?

We have previously speculated that the preparedness for an international deal on climate change presents campaigners with a problem. If everyone agrees, what role do you play, as an activist/scientist? By achieving an agreement, you undermine your role. Adam, who saw the world through the prism of climate change, no longer has a footing. Like Stern, he therefore has to reinvent his position. It’s ‘worse than previously thought’ and ‘governments don’t understand’. Because in a world defined by, and seen only through the climate change debate, once the principal debate is over, you also lose your orientation and perspective. If everyone is committed, you cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong, because the debate is no longer polarised. Eyes that are filtered green, cannot see anything in a world that is entirely green. They are blind.

It seems that the alarmism issued by the likes of Adam, Stern, and the conference organisers’ six statements represent a bizarre rear-guard action, not against prevailing forces of inaction, but their own blindness, and their own redundancy. They are fighting their own success.

There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches ? economic, technological, behavioural, management ? to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

Previously, Professor Hulme has spoken about ‘climate porn’ – the tendency of activists, journalists and politicians to use the most distressing images, worst-case scenarios, and single studies stripped of their caveats and cautions. But there is another sense in which this expression illuminates the climate debate. Climate porn is to debate what porn is to human relationships. It simulates drama and engagement by crudely satisfying base lusts and fantasies with explicit images without the danger of rejection. But it is principally an inconsequential solo pastime in which understanding and negotiation with anothers is avoided. It achieves no resolution or synthesis, and objectifies humans, their ambitions and desires. Worst still, to paraphrase what the adage warns, climate porn will make you blind.