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.

Tipping Point for the Climate Porn Industry

Headlines don’t get much more alarmist than this…

As Tory Outcast points out, the story that the Independent Newspaper thinks a catastrophe is in fact far more mundane:

The article by Tony Patterson tells the story of two commercial vessels which have managed to navigate the North East passage and uses their success as irrefutable proof that we are all going to die.

Such high-pitched tabloidism from the ‘Independent’ is nothing new of course. It epitomises what a think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), called, in 2006, ‘Climate Porn’. A BBC article at the time, picked up the story, and quoted IPPR’s head of climate change, Simon Retallack:

“It is appropriate to call [what some of these groups publish] ‘climate porn’, because on some level it is like a disaster movie,” Mr Retallack told the BBC News website.

“The public become disempowered because it’s too big for them; and when it sounds like science fiction, there is an element of the unreal there.”

Later that year, the then Director of the Tyndall Centre, Professor Mike Hulme warned that the language being used – not just by the media, but also by politicians, campaigners, and scientists – in the discussion around climate change was increasingly removed from anything scientific, and was likely to encourage people to switch off:

But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.

It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.

[…]

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.

Three years later, the BBC reports this week from the British Science Festival:

The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey.

Twice as many people now agree that “claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated”.

Four in 10 believe that many leading experts still question the evidence. One in five are “hard-line sceptics”.

The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.

Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh, who conducted the research while at the Tyndall Centre, doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the words of her former boss. As with much social science dealing with matters of climate change, the survey seems to have less to do with shedding light on public attitudes and behaviour and more to do with trying to change them:

“Unfortunately, some people latch on to this uncertainty and say ‘let’s carry on as we are’.”

She feels that many people are not “playing their part” in reducing humanity’s impact on the environment.

[…]

“In general people are showing little willingness to change their lifestyles.

“They will recycle, unplug the TV and change their light bulbs; but they won’t change how they travel or how they eat.

“These are the things that are going to make the biggest difference”

It’s interesting that Whitmarsh’s case seems to be reliant on the same outmoded notion of science communication that social scientists have been instrumental in dispelling. The ‘deficit model’ holds that public opposition to certain scientific developments and technologies is simply the result of scientific illiteracy. Get the public up to speed, it says, and they will surely make the ‘right’ decisions. We’ve mentioned before that, while the deficit model and the push for ‘public understanding of science’ have generally been supplanted by strategies of ‘public engagement’ and ‘upstream engagement’, and science academies and governments seek dialogues with the public on everything from nanotech to genomics, climate change is the subject of decidedly one-way conversations. Which is hardly surprising, given that climate change mitigation is central to all parties’ manifestos while at the same time being the source of significant distrust on the part of the electorate.

Whitmarsh does attempt to distance herself from the deficit model:

we argue that there is a need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in relation to carbon literacy, and to explore situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions, within the broader context of structural opportunities for and barriers to low‐carbon lifestyles.

But that all goes out of the window when it comes to how to get people to do the ‘right’ thing:

Together this evidence indicates that individuals would benefit from education to promote understanding and skills to manage their carbon emissions, as well as structural measures to enable and encourage carbon capability. Our survey showed that misperceptions exist which may be addressed through informational approaches (e.g., highlighting the contribution of meat production to climate change). However, the low uptake of alternatives to driving and flying, and of political actions, likely reflects broader structural and cultural impediments to behaviour change noted elsewhere.

She says as much, too, in her comments to the BBC:

But I think what we have to get across is that residual uncertainty in science is normal.

‘Residual uncertainty’ has nothing to do with it. The problem for Whitmarsh, and other academics who fail to identify the difference between activism and research, is that the over-statement of ‘the science’ is not normal, and the public are actually rather more clued up – even if only instinctively – than she gives them credit for. And in fact the public seem rather better informed than her.

As we saw, the IPPR and the Director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research – none of them sceptics – were warning back in 2006 that the climate change pudding had been over-egged, and was likely to damage the possibility of reaching the public. Mike Hulme, as director of the Tyndall Centre, would have been Whitmarsh’s boss. It’s not as if Whitmarsh could possibly be unaware of the criticisms of the over-statement of climate change.

Yet she searches for ways in which the public might be force-fed ‘carbon literacy’ programmes.

There exist several non-climate-sceptic explanations for the public’s reluctance to absorb the climate change agenda that didn’t appeal to clumsy hypotheses about disparity between official scientific truth and public opinion. These explanations credit the public with sufficient intelligence to have identified the tendency of many politicians, scientists, campaigners and journalists to exaggerate climate change with stories of ‘tipping points’, ‘N-year windows to save the planet’, and ‘inevitable catastrophe’. But Whitmarsh seems to ignore these far more simple accounts, and takes the view that a new way of conveying the same imperatives to the public is needed, rather than reflecting on the possibility that the public have, in fact, well understood the message and found it wanting. That is to say that it is possible to believe that climate change is a problem, while believing that the politics, posturing and glib copy that is produced seemingly in order to address the problem in fact plainly demonstrate a self-serving and cynical view of the public. Indeed, the ‘man in the street’ seems able to see in the environmental psychologist what the environmental psychologist can’t even see in herself. This inability to self-reflect is the defining characteristic – the symptom – of the entire climate change movement and those who uncritically engage in climate politics. With just a few, largely ignored exceptions, they will criticise anyone but themselves in reflecting on their own failure.

Back in 2006, in the BBC article featuring the IPPR’s criticism of climate porn, the Independent’s deputy editor, Ian Birrell defended his paper thus:

If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us

No sooner than his words were spoken, the readers of the Independent decided to express their own independence:

In fact, our models suggest that the Indy will go into negative circulation in Summer 2018:

But scientists predict the tipping point may have already passed sooner than will would have was been previously thought.