Climategate and a Tale of Two Georges

One event, seen by two environmental activists called George, produces two, contradicting stories in the Guardian.

George Marshall, suggests that CRU email hacking was ‘orchestrated smear campaign’, but one which yielded no evidence of anything questionable, but that ‘an application of dirty political tactics to climate change campaigning’ seeks to undermine the upcoming Copenhagen conference. Innocent scientists, who know little about communication, have unwittingly handled the affair badly, causing a PR disaster for themselves.

George Monbiot, on the other hand, is uncharacteristically reflective, and ‘dismayed and deeply shaken by’ the emails. ‘There are some messages that require no spin to make them look bad’, he says.

There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released, and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom of information request. Worse still, some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate sceptics, or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Monbiot then calls for head of the CRU, Phil Jones, to resign. Nonetheless, this doesn’t support the conspiracy-theories about the hockey stick and widespread scientific fraud, he concludes, before giving a ‘satirical’ example of what it would take to convince him that such a conspiracy did exist. Most notably, however, he answers a commenter to the site:

I apologise. I was too trusting of some of those who provided the evidence I championed. I would have been a better journalist if I had investigated their claims more closely.

This is, of course, what we’ve been telling Monbiot for several years now.

The point here is that the two Georges seem to have very different takes on what the CRU hacking has revealed. Marshall believes that the attempt to prove a conspiracy reveals a conspiracy. Monbiot says that the hacking has not substantiated the conspiracy-theory, but that certain scientists are culpable. It’s worth pointing out that, although Marshall and Monbiot accuse sceptics of conspiracy-theorising, their own arguments about ‘deniers’ and ‘well funded denial machines’ are also conspiracy theories.

We have argued here on Climate Resistance that it is a mistake to see the ascendency of environmentalism’s influence as the fruit of a conspiracy. This, we have argued, credits the environmental movement with too much. What we have said is that environmentalism has become mainstream because of the failure of the political parties, individuals, organisations, and institutions to sustain coherent political ideas and to share them with the public. The environmentalist’s tendency to see scepticism as the expression of a conspiracy owes itself, we think, to this same symptom. Climate change denial is discussed in terms of secret deals between trans-national corporations and think-tanks to subvert the public’s understanding of ‘the science’. Whereas such networks that they do manage to ‘expose’ turn out to be barely funded at all (especially by contrast to green lobbying and PR efforts), not at all hidden from view, and entirely consistent with the way the business of politics is done in today’s world. The point is that it is because environmentalists start from a position of disorientation that they tend to see any political relationship or connection as evidence of a conspiracy. The 9/11 ‘truthers’ offer us a useful metaphor: it is what isn’t said that often counts for more than what is said.

But let’s be fair. It isn’t just environmental activists who are conspiracy-mongering. The increasingly prominent climate sceptic Christopher Monckton wrote yesterday:

This is what they did — these climate “scientists” on whose unsupported word the world’s classe politique proposes to set up an unelected global government this December in Copenhagen, with vast and unprecedented powers to control all formerly free markets, to tax wealthy nations and all of their financial transactions, to regulate the economic and environmental affairs of all nations, and to confiscate and extinguish all patent and intellectual property rights.

Monckton is right that this is a phenomenon relating to the ‘classe politique’, but he again makes the mistake of attributing to it far too much intentionality. The objectives of environmentalism are not deliberate, nor about purposively engineering a social order as such. They are not ‘about’ realising any political project. There is certainly a concerted effort to build supra-national institutions that will control, regulate and manage every level of public and private life. But the ‘classe politique’s’ desire for these institutions is unfocussed, and the result of its attempting to manage its own crises. What Monckton sees as an attempt to establish a ‘global government’ are the desperate attempts of governments to rescue themselves from their own failure of purpose. As we are fond of saying, ‘the crisis is in politics, not in the skies’. Politicians and political movements project their own failures – their loss of identity, and their inability to communicate with constituencies and to explain the world – out into the world. They respond to their own failure, by creating institutions that are ‘above’ them, to which they defer.

The unconscious logic is this… Politicians (and movements, etc) borrow authority from science, because they cannot create their own. As such, any political project that this process produces is necessarily negative – the avoidance of catastrophe, terrorism, epidemics, etc. In short, politicians borrow ‘objectivity’ from science because of a lack of faith in the inherently subjective nature of democratic politics – the need for political engagement and discussion. But the loan of credibility from science to politics is not sufficient to sustain the legitimacy of political institutions, because of the problem of democratic accountability and legitimacy. As we can see, this form of politics has failed to connect with the public. So, on the basis of the looming catastrophe, institutions are established above politics, which it putatively ‘answers to’. Contemporary politics (ie, politicians) cannot cope with accountability, and so defers sovereignty away from ‘the people’ (to whom they are accountable) to a higher agency, such that it can be made ‘necessary’ to meet ‘international obligations’ (and to avert catastrophe) before meeting demands ‘from below’. In short, this is about managing people’s expectations of politics and politicians.

Monckton’s criticism is expressed as concern about the vulnerability of ‘free trade’ to environmental institutions, taxation, and regulation. But it is during an era in which the idea of free markets have become orthodoxy that the conditions for environmentalism’s ascendancy have been created. In that same era, communism has virtually disappeared, socialism too. What remains of the ‘left’ – social democracy – has embraced market principles. Moreover, it is as much conservatives as ossified leftists who have attempted to reinvent themselves as ‘green’. The climate debate simply does not divide on either left/right or pro-market/anti-market lines. The UK conservatives have fully embraced the sustainability agenda, and its emphasis on localism. Moreover, schemes such as cap-and-trade, albeit while regulating a market, nonetheless use the market to provide putative solutions to putative climate problems. And it should not be forgotten that it was Monckton’s former boss, Thatcher, who was instrumental in bringing climate change to the attention of the world’s governments, and the creation of UK and international institutions to combat climate change. As the website of the exposed CRU itself explains:

The UK Government became a strong supporter of climate research in the mid-1980s, following a meeting between Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher and a small number of climate researchers, which included Tom Wigley, the CRU director at the time. This and other meetings eventually led to the setting up of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, within the Met Office. At the same time, other governments were also taking notice and wanted more information. As this need was not being met by international scientific bodies and institutions at the time, they set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This was under the United Nations Framework (later the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC) and led to assessments being produced in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007. CRU staff have been heavily involved in all four assessments, probably more than anywhere else relative to the size of an institution (see IPCC AR4 Authors).

The ‘classe politique’ began its greening, and its borrowing from scientific authority more than 25 years ago – during which time Monckton himself was an active member of that same ‘classe politique’ he now shouts at. Yet he spoke to it, and influenced it. He cannot have it both ways. The history of contemporary environmentalism is as much the history of contemporary conservatism as it is the history of the contemporary, yet now equally defunct, Left. That it has taken him this long to see what kind of monster has been created is surely something on which he needs to reflect a little more deeply than he has done. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters… It is not enough to say ‘environmentalism is communism’, because he must know it is not true – he was there at the former’s birth, if not its conception, and the latter’s comprehensive death. Such an ahistorical perspective is precisely the symptom of the Georges, and their paranoid conspiracy-mongering. Yet the Georges can be let off the hook – slightly – because it cannot be claimed that they were there, at number 10 Downing Street, as environmentalism’s seeds were being sown.

Our argument thus far, then, can be summarised as follows. It is disorientation that causes debate to be seen as consisting of good guys beset by political conspiracies. The loss of historical perspective causes attempts to give a coherent account of the opposing argument to fail. Both ‘sides’ lack the means to explain the other, and to positively express themselves. Thus each side becomes the side that wants to save the world, the other the one that intends to destroy it. Yet, no doubt, both sides act out of conviction, and in good faith, even if they would deny the other. Their problem is their inability to self-reflect.

Curiously, the responses to the ‘Climategate’ mess similarly do not divide according to ‘sides’ taken in the debate. Monbiot thinks that those involved need to be punished:

I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed.

Bob Ward, director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, believes that ‘only a thorough investigation could now clear [the CRU researchers’] names.’

The selective disclosure and dissemination of the messages has created the impression of impropriety, and the only way of clearing the air now would be through a rigorous investigation.

Nigel Lawson, another conservative-from-the-Thatcher-administration-turned-climate-sceptic similarly feels there is a need for such a process:

The integrity of the scientific evidence on which not merely the British government, but other countries, too, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, claim to base far-reaching and hugely expensive policy decisions, has been called into question. And the reputation of British science has been seriously tarnished. A high-level independent inquiry must be set up without delay.

On each side of the debate, there are those for, and those against such an investigation, and those who think that the CRU researchers need to be either punished, or exonerated. No clear lines emerge.

Ward, characteristically, presupposes the findings of any such investigation. If it’s green, it’s right, in his view of the world. Monbiot and Lawson, to different extents, believe that clarity needs to be recovered. Marshall takes a different view, saying that:

Jones should speak to every journalist who calls, go on the offensive and defend his science.

Before we agree with Marshall, we shall point out that if Jones had taken this advice years ago, there would be no Climategate now. It’s a bit late to start being ‘transparent’, now that it is clear that he has gone out of his way to be opaque.

The Guardian article from which many of these quotes were taken, goes on to cite another opinion.

Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth’s executive director, also dismissed calls for an inquiry. He said: “Calls for an inquiry look suspiciously like an attempt to cast doubt on the science of climate change ahead of crucial UN negotiations. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is happening, that it is man-made, and that it poses a major threat to people across the planet. We can’t afford to be distracted from the need for urgent action to combat global warming – rich countries must lead the way by agreeing to slash their emissions when they meet in Copenhagen next month.

… In other words, the stakes are too high to allow an investigation to create the idea in the public mind that there is any reason to doubt the certainty that the CRU have seemingly produced.

If there were such an inquiry, it would certainly not be the first of its kind.

Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist attracted much angry attention earlier this decade, prompting an investigation by the Orwellian-sounding Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). They found Lomborg guilty of ‘dishonesty’ in 2003, but later that year, the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation overturned the ruling, finding it dishonest itself.

After McCintyre and McKitrick’s efforts to replicate the methodology of the iconic ‘hockey-stick’ graph and subject it to the scrutiny it deserved, the US congress asked the National Research Council (NRC) of the United States National Academy of Sciences to investigate the plausibility of such historical reconstructions (the North Report). Simultaneously, another report was instigated by Congressman, Joe Barton, focusing more specifically on the work behind the Hockey Stick (the Wegman Report).

Speaking in the aftermath of the recent leak (but before the discussion of an inquiry), Bob Ward brings up what he presents as ‘attacks’ on the Hockey-stick’s authors.

The attacks on the hockey stick graph led the United States National Academy of Sciences to carry out an investigation, concluding in 2006 that although there had been no improper conduct by the researchers, they may have expressed higher levels of confidence in their main conclusions than was warranted by the evidence.

In fact, the reports and their meanings are far less easy to parse than Ward claims. For McIntrye’s perspective on the reports and their findings, read here.

The fact is that institutional modes of ‘clearing up’ controversies fail comprehensively. Critics of Lomborg will cite the initial DSCD finding, rather than its parent organisations retraction. Similarly, the reports that followed in the wake of McIntyre and McKitrick are not as conclusive as their detractors (or their supporters) often claim. Arguably these kind of reports merely muddy the waters, entrench positions, demonstrate the paucity of clear evidence, and, far from convincing the public of the stainless character of those implicated, such inquiries just generate suspicion about the execution of the process, and alienate the public from the debate. Lack of facts provoke an argument, and rather than drawing a line under sordid affairs, inquiries have a tendency to amplify them.

Moreover, an inquiry into Climategate would be truly Kafkaesque. Politicians, deferring the business of democratic politics to scientific and supra-national institutions, commissioning inquiries when that process generates controversy… It’s easy to imagine an infinite regress of deferments… commissions, inquiries, reports, organisations… none of which ever resolve the increasingly surreal problematic created by the previous layer of spin, intrigue, sleaze and abrogations of responsibility.

No, the problem begins with this. There is no need for an inquiry into the behaviour of the CRU staff, because what is really at issue is not ‘is the world really warming, and is it our fault?’. Creating institution after inquiry after organisation after report after commission after committee, after international treaty, after ‘science’ to answer this question is the reason this whole debacle stinks. The farce began with politics being deferred to ‘science’. Instead of a public contest of values and ideas, vapid and gutless politicians outsourced their responsibilities to scientific academies, hoping that it would rescue their own legitimacy. It failed. An inquiry will shed no light on the matter as much as it would extend the symptom, because, as we said in our previous post:

There is no need for sceptics to attempt to locate conspiracies, fraud, or deception. Because the reality is that environmentalism has thrived in an era in which any purposive political action – least of all the execution of a conspiracy – is impossible. Environmentalism has influenced public policy not because of fraud, but because of the intellectual vacuity of politicians. And it is beyond the ken of most commentators, journalists, and eco-PR bods such as Ward to deceive the public, because they don’t even reflect on the coherence, consequences, or political character of their own ideas. Fecklessness is rife, and that is why the world is greening.

Hacking the Climate Da Vinci Code

Unless you live a fully sustainable life in a cave without any internet access, you will no doubt be aware of the hacking into a UK climate research institution’s computer system, and the release of emails between prominent figures in the small world of climate science.

This is, of course, immensely good fun, and intriguing, and is already leading to questions being asked about what the small group of individuals involved were up to. The question in the sceptic’s mind is naturally whether this data will reveal the smoking gun, leading to the discovery that liberties have been taken with certain facts. Certainly, some embarrassing prose has been exchanged, and now exposed. But it requires a degree of interpretation to make it stick. It is highly unlikely that this will render the entire climate debate over and done. But let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there was something terribly damaging in the emails that have surfaced. Would it bring the house of cards down?

We don’t think it would.

The putative certainty that the ‘hockey stick’ provided for climate politics has not yielded the momentum the environmental movement et al think it entitles them to. Domestic climate politics has not won either the hearts or minds of the public, and climate policies remain the object of much scepticism, suspicion, and cynicism. The institutions that have been created seemingly in order to ‘deal with climate change’, at local, national, and international levels, have not been created though normal political processes, nor after having their objectives or principles tested democratically. As we argue here, these institutions have more likely been created because of a lack of public sympathy for environmentalism, than merely in spite of it. (If the greens had really won the argument, why would they not try to give the institutions that have been created in its name the legitimacy of a popular mandate, as well as blessing it with scientific authority?)

Environmentalists naturally seek to explain their political failure as a deficit between the public’s understanding of the issues and ‘the science’. Politicians, too, enjoy appearing to be responding to a crisis that exists above and beyond politics than responding to anything within it. Politics is suspended in order to ‘save the planet’ at the politicians convenience. Democracy is postponed until further notice. But not because of the hockey stick. In fact, the document that has been central to the ascendency of environmental politics owes little to scientific certainty:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. – Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

Published nearly a decade before the hockey stick’s appearance, this agreement, which is even signed by George Bush Sr, aims to be the framework which will lead to:

… international agreements which respect the interests of all and protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system

The foundation for this framework is belief in the ‘integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home’, and that:

Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

Piecing these together… First, it is not necessary for there to exist a coherent argument that the Earth’s nature is ‘integral and interdependent’; the precautionary principle waves the Rio Declaration’s first premise past any scrutiny. Second, its unstated conclusion – the corollary to human beings’ entitlement to ‘a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature’ – is that humans aren’t entitled to a life that is not ‘in harmony with nature’ as it is conceived according to the tenets of ‘sustainable development’. By virtue of the ‘integral and interdependent nature of the Earth’, any life that is not ‘in harmony with nature’ is depriving another of its right to exist ‘in harmony with nature’. Never mind that ‘nature’ and ‘harmony’ are, at best, entirely nebulous, if not mystical concepts, this is environmentalism’s Bill of Rights or Magna Carta, only it leaves us humans with very little.

What’s this got to do with the CRU hacking, you say? Well, the point is that it is not necessary to peek behind the firewall to get an understanding of what kind of beast environmentalism – or any form of eco-centric political philosophy – is. What research such as that produced by the authors of the exposed emails does is supply the kind of framework expressed by the Rio Declaration with some parameters, merely so that it can narrate itself. That is to say that the politics of the Rio Declaration are prior to the Hockey Stick. Moreover, by virtue of the deployment of the precautionary principle, the conclusion of the Rio Declaration is its own premise. It’s got its head up its own arse.

The point is that any detected or projected rise in temperature does not speak for itself, no matter how sound the science behind it actually is. Any such data needs to be interpreted. That is to say that before you know what ‘science says’, you have to know what has been asked of it. As the Rio Declaration demonstrates, the question of what a rise in temperature means has already been given, or rather assumed. In the logic of environmentalism, the sensitivity of climate to CO2 is held to be equivalent to the sensitivity of society to climate. But this, again, has no basis in science. Instead it is an entirely political, or ethical precept, centered on the concept of ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ with ‘nature’. The function of ‘science’, in what follows from environmental logic, is the search for ‘evidence’ of the status of this mythical balance. But, again, ‘evidence’ does not speak for itself, because, again, it requires interpretation. Anything that is not ‘normal’, implies ‘imbalanced’ in this way of thinking.

The mistake many sceptics have been making appears to be the mirror of the mistake that environmentalists have been making – they both assume that the argument for environmental politics emerges from environmental science, either correctly as a process that produces objectively sound analysis, or as an institution prone to corruption. It doesn’t. It is only recently that arguments emerging from the environmental movement have attempted to give themselves weight by appealing to what ‘science says…’ and that from this scientific fact emerge an array of ethical imperatives and its special form of politics. Previously, environmental arguments were expressed in terms of ‘precaution’. As we can see, the Rio Declaration posits a prior relationship with nature before a scientific conception of that relationship, making an institution of the precautionary principle well in advance of putative certainty.

Of course, the emergence of the hockey stick in IPCC TAR began to alter the language of the discussion away from precaution and towards scientific certainty. As such, it has become the focus of sceptics and of warmers, for a variety of reasons. And there are very good reasons – relating to both the scientific methodology, and owing to the behaviour of those that produced it – to doubt the hockey-stick’s prescience, never mind its hindsight. As a purely scientific exercise, it may well have its own merits. But those involved in its creation, and its uncritical reproduction across the climate discussion – the politicisation of climate science – brought the hacking-attempts upon themselves. Because once this graph was given such totemic significance to the political process – ie, once so many arguments about so many futures were seemingly based on this document – its authors should have either managed expectations of science, or fully opened up every aspect of their research to scrutiny. There is no legitimate reason for hiding any aspect of an argument which demands a course of action to ‘save the planet’.

In spite of the apparent certainty offered to the debate about climate change, however, the debate was not over. Even if the Hockey Stick graph really did demonstrate anthropogenic climate change, the argument about its consequences remain unresolved. As we have discussed in recent posts, the premise that the sensitivity of both human society and the climate are equivalent is unsound. For instance, it is claimed that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ in an attempt to naturalise the phenomenon of poverty. This assumes that not driving our cars will do anything to change the plight of the world’s poor, and fails to address the matter of poverty. The point here is that the environmentalist’s conception of humanity’s relationship with nature is not premised on material evidence.

A conclusive debunking of the ‘hockey stick’ graph will not debunk the framework through which the environmentalist sees the world. It will not challenge the basis of environmentalism. And it will not disturb the foundations of the institutions that have been established in order to ‘save the planet’ (ie, to reproduce environmental ideology). Copenhagen will not be built on hockey sticks, just as Kyoto wasn’t. It, like the Rio Declaration, was created before the IPCC produced any claims regarding conclusive detection of an anthropogenic signal in the temperature record.

Our argument here on this blog has been that in order to understand the ascendency of environmental politics, it must be seen principally as a political phenomenon. The politics is prior to the science. It’s not as if environmentalism is new. Eco-centric ideas have operated in political ideas throughout history. They didn’t persist in Malthus’s era. Romantic forms of socialism such as Morris’s failed to thrive. The blood-and-soil environmentalism of the Nazis did not survive. Paul Ehrlich’s dire prophecies did not materialise. The question sceptics need to address is why this kind of thinking stuck in the era roughly spanning the late 80s to the present. Until we can do that, no amount of scandal and debunking of exaggerated scientific claims will substantially alter the debate.

There is no need to explain the phenomenon of environmentalism and its success in influencing political institutions throughout the world as a conspiracy between a small number of people. It is evident that the greening of Western governments has occurred almost entirely without the ideas pertaining to this transformation ever having been the subject of democratic testing. It is transparent that the institutions that have been established are not populated by accountable individuals, and have been located outside, above, or beyond the reach of normal domestic politics. Politicians who have been instrumental in creating the green future have emphasised the scare story, rather than openly discussed what kind of future it is that they are creating. Whatever failures of scientific methodology or fraud these emails represent, exposing them will not expose the phenomenon of environmentalism and its causes.

None of this is intended to pour water on the arguments made in the debate by those who are focussed on the science. It is essential to scrutinise the science produced in this debate in order to show that there are problems in the political argument that they seemingly support. The point is that no amount of science can sort the debate out, because it is not principally a scientific debate.

Environmentalists claim that their argument is grounded in scientific objectivity. But this is only possible because they fail to see their argument as political. Writing on Friday about the CRU hacking, our old friend, Bob Ward, wrote in the Guardian:

More importantly, these skeptics have not overturned the well-established basic physics of the greenhouse effect, namely that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and increasing its concentration in the atmosphere causes the earth to warm. They also have not managed to make melting glaciers and rising sea levels, or any other evidence of warming, disappear into thin air. But they have managed to confuse some of the public about the causes of climate change.

Those making scientific arguments for political action on climate change cannot complain about confusing the public, and ought to focus instead on their own confusion. What Ward and those engaged in making arguments like his haven’t overturned is the idea that small changes in climate are easily coped with by wealthy, industrialised, economies. The premise that they operate on is that they cannot, and this is the basis of their political and ‘ethical’ outlooks. As such, their environmentalism turns into an argument against development, and against humanity itself. They betray this much when they attempt to explain any failure of their political ideas to resonate with the public. Ward continues:

Over the past five years, Mann and Jones in particular have been subjected not only to legitimate scrutiny by other researchers, but also to a co-ordinated campaign of personal attacks on their reputation by ‘sceptics’. If the hacked e-mails are genuine, they only show that climate researchers are human, and that they speak badly in private about ‘sceptics’ who accuse them of fraud.

It is inevitable as we approach the crucial meeting in conference in Copenhagen in December that the sceptics would try some stunt to try to undermine a global agreement on climate change. There is no smoking gun, but just a lot of smoke without fire.

Ward neglects to offer us any idea about which sort of scrutiny is legitimate, and which isn’t. The implication is that the good guys want to save the planet, and the bad guys want it to be destroyed. In Ward’s view, goodies and baddies populate the debate. Any attempt to scutinise the basis of an agreement at Copenhagen is, in Ward’s view, illegitimate, and will be answered by Ward accusing people of fraud, or some such illegitimate interest.

What this betrays is the fragility of the environmental argument and its premises. There is no need for sceptics to attempt to locate conspiracies, fraud, or deception. Because the reality is that environmentalism has thrived in an era in which any purposive political action – least of all the execution of a conspiracy – is impossible. Environmentalism has influenced public policy not because of fraud, but because of the intellectual vacuity of politicians. And it is beyond the ken of most commentators, journalists, and eco-PR bods such as Ward to deceive the public, because they don’t even reflect on the coherence, consequences, or political character of their own ideas. Fecklessness is rife, and that is why the world is greening.