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.


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…


…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.

Astroturfers and Space Cadets

Poor George Monbiot is even miserabler than usual:

On the Guardian’s environment site in particular, and to a lesser extent on threads across the Guardian’s output, considered discussion is being drowned in a tide of vituperative gibberish. A few hundred commenters appear to be engaged in a competition to reach the outer limits of stupidity. They post so often and shout so loudly that intelligent debate appears to have fled from many threads, as other posters have simply given up in disgust. I’ve now reached the point at which I can’t be bothered to read beyond the first page or so of comments. It is simply too depressing.

His problem is that lots of commenters don’t agree with him. And Monbiot flatters himself that there can be only reason for that – someone must be paying them to do so:

As I documented extensively in my book Heat, and as sites like DeSmogBlog and Exxonsecrets show, there is a large and well-funded campaign by oil, coal and electricity companies to insert their views into the media.

They have two main modes of operating: paying people to masquerade as independent experts, and paying people to masquerade as members of the public. These fake “concerned citizens” claim to be worried about a conspiracy by governments and scientists to raise taxes and restrict their freedoms in the name of tackling a non-existent issue. This tactic is called astroturfing. It’s a well-trodden technique, also deployed extensively by the tobacco industry. You pay a public relations company to create a fake grassroots (astroturf) movement, composed of people who are paid for their services. They lobby against government attempts to regulate the industry and seek to drown out and discredit people who draw attention to the issues the corporations want the public to ignore.

Considering the lengths to which these companies have gone to insert themselves into publications where there is a risk of exposure, it is inconceivable that they are not making use of the Guardian’s threads, where they are protected by the posters’ anonymity. Some of the commenters on these threads have been paid to disseminate their nonsense, but we have no means, under the current system, of knowing which ones they are.

Monbiot even once went as far as challenging one of the commenters, who ignored him. Which has got to prove something:

Two months ago I read some comments by a person using the moniker scunnered52, whose tone and content reminded me of material published by professional deniers. I called him out, asking “Is my suspicion correct? How about providing a verifiable identity to lay this concern to rest?” I repeated my challenge in another thread. He used distraction and avoidance in his replies, but would not answer or even address my question, which gave me the strong impression that my suspicion was correct.

As it happens, we’ve been making the odd venture into Comment is Free discussions recently, and the funny thing is that the vast majority of our time on there has been spent fending off accusations that we are paid deniers, astroturfers, corporate sock-puppets, and that we’ve been posting under multiple aliases as part of an orchestrated campaign.

Monbiot’s preoccupation with astroturfers and the like sits hilariously with the fact that it is environmentalism that claims to be the grassroots movement trying to be heard above the din of the well-funded denial machine. The truth is of course that environmental orthodoxy is being driven from the top down, and comprises a range of corporate interests, policy-makers, media types, academics, NGO’s and private-school activists. The group it has most spectacularly failed to win over is the electorate. There’s a whole lot of people out there who disagree vehemently with Monbiot – too many for any denial machine to be able to afford to pay.

This failure is explained by the Monbiots of this world as the result of the influence of ‘deniers’, of course. Deniers have accordingly become the key antagonists in environmental mythology. But rather than taking on the arguments of the deniers, George has a fantasy battle in his own head. These fantasy deniers say so much more about George than they say about the real world.

A Big Fuss About Small Change

Bob Ward is at it again. In an article for the Guardian, he writes that – shock, horror – ExxonMobil continues to fund organisations he disagrees with, even though he has told them not to.

A few weeks ago, ExxonMobil revealed that it made contributions in 2008 to lobby groups such as the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Heritage Foundation in order to “promote informed discussion”. So I have now written again to ExxonMobil to point out that these organisations publish misleading information about climate change on their websites

Ward, you might remember, started writing letters of complaint to the likes of Exxon when he was Director of Communications at the Royal Society, who supplied him with headed note-paper. He continued his crusade after taking up the post of Director of Global Science Networks at global risk insurance firm RMS. And he shows no sign of stopping now that he’s Policy and Communications Director at Professor Lord Sir Nicholas Stern’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE.

The Guardian deems Ward’s article important enough to get its staff environment reporter to write an article about the fact that Ward has written an article:

The world’s largest oil company is continuing to fund lobby groups that question the reality of global warming, despite a public pledge to cut support for such climate change denial, a new analysis shows.

Company records show that ExxonMobil handed over hundreds of thousands of pounds to such lobby groups in 2008. These include the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in Dallas, Texas, which received $75,000 (£45,500), and the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, which received $50,000.

According to Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at the London School of Economics, both the NCPA and the Heritage Foundation have published “misleading and inaccurate information about climate change.”

‘Hundreds of thousands of pounds’. Gosh. Compared to the sums made available for climate alarmism, even the ~$45 million paid out by Exxon over the course of a decade (according to Greenpeace’s Exxonsecrets website) is chicken feed. One only needs to compare it to the amount given by Ward’s benefactor, Jeremy Grantham, to put things into perspective. As a Sunday Times article revealed recently:

So concerned is Grantham, 70, over this issue that he has set up the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, endowed with £165m of his own money, to fund environmental research and campaigns. From it he is funding the LSE and Imperial donations, and other grants to American groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund.

So, just one individual has given nearly five times more in one lump to the green cause than Exxon (a petro-chemicals giant) is alleged to have given over the course of a decade. Nevermind the $billions at the disposal of the giant green NGOs such as WWF, and Greenpeace – many of which enjoy cosy relationships with governments and the EU, who go so far as paying such groups to lobby them.

According to Grantham:

Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world.

Says the… erm… Capitalist businessman. But whose interests will the remodelling of global capitalism and business serve?

Ward, of course, has his own interests served by elevating poorly-funded networks of ‘deniers’ to the status of global capitalist conspiracy. It gives the impression that there’s actually an organised challenge to the increasing influence of environmental ideology, giving him a role as its inquisitor. Thus, the image of the brave Ward standing against evil corporate conspiracies (with billionaires standing behind him, out of focus) gives such environmental ideology the appearance of socially-progressive radicalism.

Yet, arguably, Exxon are the ones doing the social good here, donating such sums that, if only in a small way, create the possibility of debate that has been so far dominated by the interests of the super-wealthy – the Goldsmiths, Prince Charles, the Tickells, Gore, and so on. Why should we take their word for it that their influence, and the influence of the institutions they lobby for, and fund, and direct, are operating in our interests?

Moreover, Ward’s accusations about the corrupting influence of corporate dollars can be thrown right back at him. From his HQ at the LSE, Ward’s boss Nick Stern runs both the Grantham and the Centre for Climate Change, Economics and Policy (CCCEP). While Ward’s employment is ostensibly with the Grantham, he also doubles up as PR man for the CCCEP. The CCCEP is funded jointly by the UK’s research councils and risk insurance giants Munich Re.

The close association between climate alarmists and the insurance industry is no less natural than that between ‘sceptics’ and Exxon. Just as Exxon might be expected to play down the threat of climate change when it suits them, Munich Re can be relied upon to overstate the dangers. Fear of risk is to the insurance industry what oil is to Exxon.

The difference is that Bob Ward doesn’t write letters of complaint to Munich Re insurers or articles for the Guardian when Munich Re disseminates ‘misleading and inaccurate information about climate change’ – which they surely do.

While Big Oil dishes out a few quid to a handful of pressure groups on the political fringes, Big Insurance conducts its business safely ensconced within the political, academic and scientific establishment. Its own brand of misleading and inaccurate information is acceptable simply because it does not conflict with the political goals of the environmental elite. Indeed, that same misleading and inaccurate information becomes central to the environmental cause, forming the basis of, for example, Kofi Annan’s much-publicised report ‘demonstrating’ that 300,000 people per year are dying as a result of climate change.

To take Exxon funding is to attract accusations of ‘denialism’, but to be funded by Munich Re is something to be proud of, to the extent that esteemed academic institutions such as the LSE want to tell the world about it:

New world-leading Grantham Research Institute opens for business as LSE joins forces with Munich Re on climate change

The £millions available to Ward and his colleagues have improved neither the quality of their arguments nor their popularity with the electorate. No wonder they are terrified that Exxon are still funding ‘deniers’. Grantham ought to ask for his money back. Surely, if ‘deniers’ were engaged in prostituting their intellectual resources for pure profit, the best way to ensure that the environmental message got heard would be to pay them to switch sides. After all, in spite of the $billions that have been made available to green causes, it’s only (allegedly) taken Exxon $45m to undo all that ‘good’ work.

Ward Loses Patience

Among the most absurd elements of climate change debates is the persistence of the issue of ‘funding’. Absurd because at the same time that science is held to give uncorrupted and incorruptible instructions about how to respond to a changing climate, it is also held – by the very same people – to be vulnerable to ‘attack’ and ‘distortion’ by financial interests. This form of argument has been deployed by alarmists to diminish the credibility of anyone challenging the ‘consensus’, whether or not they actually challenge ‘the science’. According to this logic, anybody who has any sympathy with any sort of contrary argument, if they aren’t part of the organised conspiracy to ‘distort the science’, have been brainwashed by it.

It’s also absurd because no matter how hard an attempt is made to divide the debate between good and bad, funded and unfunded, interested and disinterested, the argument fails. For every vested interest in ‘business as usual’, there is a venture capitalist lobbying for legislation that will create a market for their carbon finance products. For every ‘politically-motivated’ argument standing against the Kyoto Protocol and its successor, there is an ideologue angling to reorganise society according to the tenets of environmentalism. For every ‘denial’ of climate change science, a hundred more liberties are taken with the facts in the other direction.

It’s even more absurd because those who shriek the loudest about the corrupting influence of dirty oil money tend to have far more than their fair share of power in climate debates.

Talking of which, we are flattered that Bob Ward – Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, erstwhile Director of Public Policy at risk insurance giants RMS and before that, Senior Manager for Policy Communication at the Royal Society – has dropped by to give his thoughts on our observation that, if you’re going to go around accusing the opposition of corruption, you’d better be whiter than white yourself. We suggested that Ward’s obsession with Exxon is rather ironic given his own links with the risk insurance industry. And, of course, the risk insurance industry has at least as much to gain from climate alarmism as Exxon has from playing down the dangers.

Except that the only thoughts that Ward has actually offered consist of accusations that… you’ve guessed it… that we are motivated by our own dodgy financial interests:

Dear Ben and Stuart,

Who needs ‘LinkedIn’ when you can have hilarious pages on spoof websites like this devoted to your career! Congratulations on one of the most imaginative attacks on me yet – it ranks alongside ExxonMobil’s attempts to convince Chris Huhne MP that there were question marks over my departure from the Royal Society!

I was hoping to gauge whether I was demonstrably more corrupt than you, but sadly you seem to be a bit shy about revealing the identity of your paymasters. Do tell!

Then, in true Pythonesque Spanish-Inquisition style, he adds:

I didn’t expect you to reveal your sources of financial support, and you didn’t disappoint. Or maybe you really are independently wealthy and don’t need to work for a living. Just like Prince Charles, eh chaps? Pip pip!

If Ward can be so wrong in this instance – and, for the record, he is utterly wrong on both counts – it does rather make one wonder about the veracity of any of his other accusations.

You are welcome to make of it what you like. We are aware that one mustn’t make too much of the witterings of a PR professional. But, at the very least, we’d expect rather more from a PR professional of Ward’s credentials, especially one who claims to speak for science – as Ward does in his many indignant open letters to his various nemeses. No, maybe not.

Anyway, like one commenter, we are intrigued to find out what Ward actually thinks is ‘imaginative’ about our account. All we have done is pull together a bunch of factual observations about the political, business and academic interests of Ward and his associates. No imagination necessary. But Ward is too busy with the ‘ad hominems’ to say what might actually be wrong with the piece.

It would seem that Ward is aspiring to the standards set by his former boss at the Royal Society, Bob May, who, while on the one hand, insists that we ‘respect the facts‘ (as designated by the Royal Society), is only too willing to make up stuff as it pleases him as long as it serves his political ends.

As we pointed out a long time ago, Greenpeace’s attempts to establish the size of the conspiracy to distort science culminated in a total failure of the argument. Their Exxonsecrets website aimed to demonstrate the flow of cash between the oil giant and a network of think tanks, and found a trail of cash amounting to $22 million between 1998 and 2006. Their own budget for the same period was $2.1 billion. For every dollar that Exxon is alleged to have spent on distorting the debate, Greenpeace spent a thousand on their own propaganda effort.

What does it prove? Not very much. All it says is that the issue of funding and interests isn’t clear cut, and in fact cuts both ways. But it does suggest that Grantham’s Policy and Communications Director is getting rather desperate if he is resorting to hurling accusations of dodgy funding at a couple of lowly bloggers.

If you think we are getting a bit over-excited by all this, you’re probably right. But the point is that, while people shriek that interests corrupt, it’s not just profits and careers that are being established on the back of climate change anxiety – an entire climate change industry and national and international political institutions are being constructed with the objective of changing the way we live. What we have argued on this blog is that, whatever the scientific truth about climate change, it doesn’t call for special politics and special political institutions that are, for the sake of our survival, above criticism and scrutiny. Bob Ward and his ilk seem to think that this industry and these institutions – which he has played his own small part in manufacturing – are above scrutiny, and that all he needs to do to dismiss any criticism is point his fingers and cry ‘Exxon!’. Given the lack of popular support for the restructuring of political systems on environmental grounds, perhaps Ward’s boss at Grantham, Lord Stern, should consider getting a new Public Relations man.

Gore Mouthing-Off About Make-Believe Madoffs

Our last post concerned the New York Times article by Andrew Revkin, about allegations of a ‘tobacco strategy’ conspiracy to distort the climate debate in the interests of energy companies.

The story was used by Al Gore in testimony to congress, in which he accuses the group of a fraud larger than that committed by Bernie Madoff, as Think Progress reports. They also upload a video and transcript of Gore’s speech, which makes this post much easier to write.

[youtube 43scwzZ7zto&]

Gore says:

The largest corporate carbon polluters in America, 14 years ago, asked their own people to conduct a review of all of this science. And their own people told them, “What the international scientific community is saying is correct, there is no legitimate basis for denying it.” Then, these large polluters committed a massive fraud far larger than Bernie Madoff’s fraud. They are the Bernie Madoffs of global warming. They ordered the censoring and removal of the scientific review that they themselves conducted, and like Bernie Madoff, they lied to the people who trusted them in order to make money.

But as we point out, this is just wrong. Here’s a quick recap of why.

  • The review took place in 1995,  but the information it allegedly contradicts was circulated in the early 1990’s, according to the evidence. Logically, therefore, no contradiction emerges from the evidence. 
  • The documents only contradict each other when quoted from selectively. (See below for quotes).
  • The claim of fraud can only be made
    • by blurring distinctions between logically distinct categories of knowledge
    • by ignoring the order of events
    • by reducing matters of degree to binary true/false axioms
    • by exaggerating the influence of the alleged conspiracy. 

The allegation made in the NYT article focuses on two quotes, one in the material published by the group, the other is from the review. 

[Published, early 1990s] “The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

[Review, 1995] “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

But the full paragraph from the review reveals that no contradiction exists in the evidence given. 

The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied. While, in theory, human activities have the potential to result in net cooling, a concern about 25 years ago, the current balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of particulates and particulate-formers is such that essentially all of today’s concern is about net warming. However, as will be discussed below, it is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change as a result of the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, because of the complex, possibly chaotic, nature of the climate system, it may never be possible to accurately predict future climate or to estimate the impact of increased  greenhouse gas concentrations.

Read the links in the previous post for more background.

But here’s the most absurd thing. Gore begins his account of the alleged fraud with these words:

I believe it is important to look at the sources of the science that we rely on. With all due respect, I believe that you have relied on people you have trusted who have given you bad information. I do not blame the investors who trusted Bernie Madoff, but he gave them bad information.

If it needs pointing out: 1) Gore has bad information from the NYT article. 2) Gore has not ‘looked at the sources of the science’ to check their reliability. (Neither did Revkin).

Let’s put this into perspective. Rumour-mongering about special-interests paying to distort the debate began on the Internet as the site exxonsecrets.org – a petty rumour-mill operated by Greenpeace. This inconsequential muck-raking has been given superficial journalistic and academic credibility by activists such as George Monbiot and academic activists such as Naomi Oreskes, and lastly by Andrew Revkin. Through a process that owes more to the party game ‘Chinese whispers’ than academic or scientific rigour, unfounded rumour and innuendo has been regurgitated onto the floor of perhaps the most influential democratic institution in the world. 

This is climate politics. It pretends to be about saving the planet. But in reality, it is crass, petty, and self-interested. 

Climate sceptics ought to take two messages from this. 

First, it is clear that environmentalists are clutching at straws to make their case. 

Second, that climate politics of this kind has achieved this level of prominence therefore cannot be blamed solely on climate activists. It cannot be argued that environmentalism has risen under its own steam. It’s momentum has been generated by a vacuum of ideas that all political parties suffer from. This is the issue that needs addressing.

Know Your Times

>> UPDATE: Gore uses the flawed NYT article in his testimony to congress. READ MORE. <<

New York Times journalist, Andrew Revkin, generally writes thoughtfully in the paper, and on his Dot Earth blog, even if we generally disagree with him.

However, writing for the paper yesterday, he lowers himself to the level of debate we’re used to seeing from the likes of George Monbiot, who we frequently mention. Indeed, Revkin even quotes Monbiot.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

This is the ‘tobacco strategy’ thesis that Monbiot has taken from Naomi Oreskes. We’ve written about it on several occasions

The thesis needs no exposition here – read the links. Suffice it to say that it attempts (but also fails comprehensively) to show exactly what Revkin aims to show.

For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

That is – a conspiracy to subvert the truth according to environmentalism using those vicious weapons, argument and science within democratic debate! Bastards! How dare they?

The demonstration of the conspiracy’s weight rests on the ‘discovery’ of information (actually it was in the public domain) relating to its budget.

The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.

That’s right folks, this conspiracy was financed to the tune of a whopping great big massive huge giant vast $1.68 million dollars! A year! Wow, that’s nearly enough money for… erm… a couple of adverts!

As we’ve pointed out, $1.68 million is absolute peanuts in comparison to the spend on propaganda from environmental organisations. But these groups can’t even claim to be providing a useful service, like fuel. 

As we’ve also pointed out, many times, the efforts of these organisations is usually well out of kilter with anything that emerges from the scientific literature.


Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. 

We have also pointed out that the tobacco-strategy-conspiracy-theory as put forward by Oreskes substantially depends on a re-writing of scientific history: that it has long been ‘known’ as ‘fact’ that mankind is influencing the climate. In fact, the IPCC process did not produce any putative ‘certainty’ until TAR2001.

Similarly focussing on what was known by the conspiracy, and what it published, Revkin compares two statements, one public, distributed in the early 1990s, and the other private, produced in 1995:

[PUBLIC, early 1990s] “The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

[PRIVATE, 1995] “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

This is silly. Even if the private memo wasn’t written AFTER the first, the two statements are not incompatible. The role of greenhouse gasses in climate change ARE NOT well understood, even if the POTENTIAL impact of human emissions has been documented. That is why the Kyoto protocol was advanced, under the terms of the Rio Declaration, not on the basis of knowledge or of certainty, but according to the precautionary principle. The ‘potential impact’ of anthropogenic climate change has, since the dawn of climate alarmism, been understood as anything between slightly better conditions for agriculture, and total annihilation of life on Earth.

The Environmentalists’ case rests on the claim that the knowledge of the fact that CO2 can influence climate is equivalent to knowledge that it will produce widespread effects, not just to climate, but to society.

Moreover, Revkin, seemingly in search of a scoop, quotes selectively from the private document. In context, the apparent contradiction evaporates:

The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied. While, in theory, human activities have the potential to result in net cooling, a concern about 25 years ago, the current balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of particulates and particulate-formers is such that essentially all of today’s concern is about net warming. However, as will be discussed below, it is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change as a result of the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, because of the complex, possibly chaotic, nature of the climate system, it may never be possible to accurately predict future climate or to estimate the impact of increased  greenhouse gas concentrations.

The New York Times publish this comment attached to the documents.

The Public Message: Climate Uncertainty: In the early 1990s, the Global Climate Coalition was the leading voice for industries concerned that a prompt push to cut heat-trapping emissions could raise energy costs. It produced a series of “backgrounders” available to the press and policymakers. This flier appears to contradict what the coalition’s science and technology advisers were saying about the basic science pointing to substantial warming from a buildup of such gases.

 Revkin has failed to notice the incoherence of the arguments made by environmentalists. 

In summary:

1. Environmentalists confuse the ‘fact’ of anthropogenic CO2’s unquantified influence with the range of nth-order effects that it may (or may not) cause. But the fact of the influence of anthropogenic CO2 on the climate is distinct to facts of the degree of that effect, which is again logically distinct from the facts relating to the effects produced as second, third, and fourth order effects on climate systems, ecosystems, species, primary industry and civil infrastructure, economy, and society. 

2. The document contradicting the claims made in the briefing document was written after the briefing document was circulated. Therefore, no contradiction emerges from the evidence. 

3. The documents only contradict each other when quoted from selectively. 

4. The environmentalists’ case only exists by blurring distinctions between logically distinct categories of knowledge, by ignoring the order of events, by reducing matters of degree to binary true/false axioms, and by exaggerating the influence of the alleged conspiracy. 

[ETA: We have been unclear in the above post. There are two sentences which appear in the document published by the NYT.

The first says The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”

The second says “The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied.”

The first sentence appears ahead of the second in the document. The second paragraph is part of the larger paragraph, as quoted.

This changes nothing about the meaning, nor of the failure of the NYT to check their story but we thought we ought to draw people’s attention to the two instances. – Editors]

Psycho-Activists' Lack-of-Substance Abuse

Last month, we mentioned a conference at the University of the West of England, which set out to diagnose the debilitating condition suffered by those who fail to subscribe to the environmental orthodoxy.

We suggested that it’s a sure sign that environmentalism’s political arguments are failing when its adherents resort to the pathologisation of dissenters. Climate psycho-activist George Marshall had followed up his opening address to the conference with a Guardian piece explaining that ‘the greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information’.

What he meant by ‘we’ was ‘them’. But that’s the trouble with psychology: we all have one. If scepticism can be reduced to a psycho-pathological phenomenon, then so too can willingness to toe the line of green orthodoxy. Things get even more difficult for Marshall because, given that the majority of the world’s population would count as sceptics (and Marshall’s despair over the results of various opinion polls would suggest that he’d agree with this), it seems rather odd to be writing off such views as an aberration.

We suggested that his analysis could be thrown right back at him just by reversing the meaning of each of his arguments. The same goes for a similar analysis from green campaigning philosopher James Garvey, which we missed at the time. Garvey drew on Mayer Hillman’s ten excuses for inaction on climate change:

1. I don’t believe in climate change.
2. Technology will be able to halt climate change.
3. Others are to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those calling for action.
5. It’s not my problem.
6. There’s nothing I can do about it.
7. How I run my life is my business.
8. There are more important problems to tackle.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. We are already making real progress on climate change.

Once again, with just a modicum of tweaking, these can be transformed into ten excuses to do ‘something’ on climate change:

1. I believe in climate change.
2. Technology won’t be able to halt climate change.
3. I am to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those criticising action for its own sake.
5. This is personal.
6. There’s something I can do to make myself feel better about it.
7. How I run my life is everyone’s business, and theirs mine.
8. I haven’t got anything better to do.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. Climate change is worse than previously thought.

Meanwhile, Marshall continues to clutch at the straws offered by eco-psychology. He has recently posted his Guardian piece on his blog with a postscript in which he lists some of the responses made to the original ‘which are mostly text book examples of the various denial strategies we know only too well’. It’s all he can do; he has nowhere else to go. No point countering with political arguments. Because the outcome of Marshall’s argument is that politics itself is reducible to the sum of the expression of our psychological idiosyncrasies. It’s the only way to resolve the conflict between his statements that A) psychology is the biggest determinant of one’s willingness to act on climate change, and B) ‘political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change’:

Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”

If ‘denialism’ is a pathology, so too is Republicanism. And who argues with madmen? Handy.

Last year, Ben wrote a review of Garvey’s book The Ethics of Climate Change. Since then, Garvey’s argument hasn’t got any more sophisticated, nor even more philosophical.

A more philosophical question might be ‘what are the ethics of treating people with different views as though they had a psychological disorder?’ But indeed, the tendency to psychologise political difference rather than face awkward philosophical and political questions is symptomatic of what we have described as the orthodox-interested category of players in the climate change debate. If it is possible to characterise climate change ‘denial’ with a list of symptoms, then it is legitimate to do the same with their counterparts, as above.

Garvey, like many climate change activists, hides his ethics (or equally possibly, his lack of them) behind scientific authority. But he escapes being head-shrinked into a category by claiming that ‘the science’ justifies his outlook – even though, as he admits, he doesn’t actually understand the science. Knowledge of the material world that informs his ethical perspective comes to him from authority – science academies, the IPCC. Garvey might wish to consult a number of philosophers who point out that experience is prior to science. Science’s aim is to build an objective picture of the world. But it is not executed by objective beings. Nor is it viewed by objective beings.

Hillman’s ten arguments give us a view of what a ‘sceptic’ might say, each implying that the individual hasn’t been sufficiently exposed to the official scientific truth. But as our own ten points demonstrate, it is easy to form an equally ill-informed perspective the other way. Garvey, like Hillman takes what he understands to be an objective, scientific fact – climate change is dangerous and is happening – and runs with it. Where does it take him?

It takes him, Hillman, and Marshall to a view of other people. The prospect of catastrophe allows Garvey to reinvent a system of ethics to explain how people ought to behave. It allows Hillman to speculate on the nature of other people’s ignorance. It allows Marshall to peer inside the heads of his political opposition. It allows the creation of a form of politics which sees people as little more than a collection of animal drives and instincts – objects, which they have studied, that need to be managed lest they unleash thermageddon.

This is what people object to. It is not an objection that appears on Hilman’s list. He obviously hasn’t reflected very deeply on what an objection to his own view might be. Naturally, this is because he denies that there can be an objection. Science says so. Let us correct him. Garvey’s, Hillman’s and Marshall’s arguments are not formed from objectivity. They are formed at a time in which men such as these struggle to find any way of elevating themselves. They have very little to offer the world in terms of ideas about how to make it a better place. So they instead tell us that it is much much worse place than we can possibly contemplate, and worsening. It is only from their privileged standpoint that the danger can be seen. These three men demonstrate their inability to communicate with the public. Their shrill voices represent an increasingly desperate attempt to shout instructions across the distance between them and the rest of the world.

People can see that this is what environmental politics, ethics and psychology are about. That is because they have a subjective position on the world; they are not mere collections of animal drives. And as subjective beings, it is easy to imagine things from a different perspective. It is easy to sense, if not recognise, that what lies behind environmental catastrophism is a desire to control. Once the subjective position of eco-zealots is understood, it is easy to see that there is not only a way of explaining their alarmism, but also a substantial disparity between what emerges from the ‘objective’ scientific process and the bleak environmental orthodoxy they produce.

The Psychology of the Psychology of Denial

Last week, we mentioned an academic conference at the University of the West of England about the psychology of climate change denial, which appeared to be rather lacking on the academic front. It was a gathering of a handful of higher beings – Jungian analysts, climate activists and eco-psychologists – who, having shrugged off the shackles of the human condition, are now able to diagnose what is wrong with the rest of us.

The opening address was given by George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, and author of ‘Carbon Detox’, who popped up his week on Comment is Free to tell us just how sick we are:

The greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information.

He sets out the problem with a superficial analysis of ambivalent responses to ambiguous surveys:

nearly 80% of people claim to be concerned about climate change. However, delve deeper and one finds that people have a remarkable tendency to define this concern in ways that keep it as far away as possible. They describe climate change as a global problem (but not a local one) as a future problem (not one for their own lifetimes) and absolve themselves of responsibility for either causing the problem or solving it.

Most disturbing of all, 60% of people believe that “many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing to climate change”. Thirty per cent of people believe climate change is “largely down to natural causes”, while 7% refuse to accept the climate is changing at all.

Pesky humans, making simple black-and-white issues so unnecessarily complicated.

How is it possible that so many people are still unpersuaded by 40 years of research and the consensus of every major scientific institution in the world? Surely we are now long past the point at which the evidence became overwhelming?

Cue the psycho-analysis:

Having neither the time nor skills to weigh up each piece of evidence we fall back on decision-making shortcuts formed by our education, politics and class. In particular we measure new information against our life experience and the views of the people around us.

Yes. And Marshall’s article is a warning of what you might start believing in if you choose to hang around with psychobabblers. Each of his diagnoses can be thrown right back at him. First up:

George Lakoff, of the University of California, argues that we often use metaphors to carry over experience from simple or concrete experiences into new domains. Thus, as politicians know very well, broad concepts such as freedom, independence, leadership, growth and pride can resonate far deeper than the policies they describe.

None of this bodes well for a rational approach to climate change. Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”.

Marshall – like many political environmentalists – kids himself that he is informed only by cold, hard, rational, scientific reality. Ideology is what the deniers do. Which allows him to pretend that his own penchant for ‘broad concepts’ such as ‘restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention’ – and his distaste for freedom, independence and growth – are merely imperatives determined by the science. Who’s delusional here?


Dr Myanna Lahsen, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado, has specialised in understanding how professional scientists, some of them with highly respected careers, turn climate sceptic. She found the largest common factor was a shared sense that they had personally lost prestige and authority as the result of campaigns by liberals and environmentalists. She concluded that their engagement in climate issues “can be understood in part as a struggle to preserve their particular culturally charged understanding of environmental reality.”

Lahsen’s interviews with three high-profile and self-professed sceptical scientists are interesting. They reveal that they recognise precisely what Marshall does not – that scientific information can be interpreted in different ways, and that policy does not flow automatically from any science. Lahsen describes the interviews as ‘remarkably frank‘, and the interviewees certainly appear a lot more self-aware (and to have less to hide) than Marshall, who interprets Lahsen’s findings thus:

In other words, like the general public, they form their beliefs through reference to a world view formed through politics and life experience. In order to maintain their scepticism in the face of a sustained, and sometimes heated, challenge from their peers, they have created a mutually supportive dissident culture around an identity as victimised speakers for the truth.

Which is just hilarious in the light of his claims that his own unpopular ‘truth’ is being steamrollered by dirty oil money, right-wing ideology and a psychologically deranged public.

One academic study of 192 sceptic books and reports found that 92% were directly associated with right wing free market think tanks. It concluded that the denial of climate change had been deliberately constructed “as a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism”.

So, given that scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement, how can sceptics be swayed?

That ‘scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement’ is patently untrue. The environmental movement is far better funded, having at its disposal hundreds of millions for expensive PR and lobbying campaigns. Indeed, the likes of the European Union even fund such groups as WWF and Friends of the Earth to lobby its own MEPs.

No amount of ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ can legitimise any political ideology. Contrary to Marshall’s claims, there is nothing ideological about scepticism. Sceptics aren’t asking for the world to be reorganised around environmental ethics. George is. Where you stand on the climate issue does not determine where you stand on the merits or otherwise of conservative ideology. Sceptics object to environmentalism’s hiding of its politics behind ‘the science’ to claim that science produces moral imperatives, and that failing to observe them will cause apocalypse. Stop to ask if climate problems really demand the special politics of environmentalism – that we must swap development and progress for security, for example, or that living a ‘sustainable lifestyle’ really is the best way to express solidarity with the world’s poor and to lift them out of poverty – and George Marshall will call you a conservative. It’s black and white for him – you either do as he says, or you’ve been brainwashed by Jeremy Clarkson. You’re in denial.

Marshall is forced to fall back on psychobabble because the political case for environmentalism has proved unpersuasive. You can almost hear him putting up his hands in defeat in his answer to his own question, ‘how can sceptics be swayed?’ Forget arguing with them, he says, you can cure them only by appealing to their baser, human instincts, especially peer pressure, ‘probably the most important influence of all’:

when dealing with a sceptic, don’t get into a head to head with them. Just politely point out all the people they know and respect who believe that climate change is a serious problem — and they aren’t sandle-wearing tree huggers, are they?

Yep, that’ll do it.

Ultimately, Marshall’s case is self-defeating. If the arguments made by contrarian scientists and the majority of the world’s population can be written off as a product of screwy psychology, then so too can those made by Marshall and his cronies – and everyone else for that matter. But when it comes down to it, we don’t care to peer into Marshall’s head in search of psychological peculiarities that contribute to his political inclinations, his self-delusion, his low opinion of his fellow humans, his willingness to toe the green party line, to reinterpret cautious scientific findings as a sign of the imminent eco-Rapture, to fail to distinguish science from politics, or, indeed, his creepy habit of peering into the heads of anyone who disagrees with him.

Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree

This weekend, the University of the West of England’s Centre for Psycho-Social Studies is holding a conference on ‘The Psychological and Political Challenge of Facing Climate Change’. According to conference organiser Professor Paul Hoggett:

“We will examine [climate change] denial from a variety of different perspectives…

Except he doesn’t actually mean ‘different perspectives’:

…as the product of addiction to consumption, as the outcome of diffusion of responsibility and the idea that someone else will sort it out and as the consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency, irresponsibility.”

Brendan O’Neill beat us to it:

…It will be a gathering of those from the top of society – ‘psychotherapists, social researchers, climate change activists, eco-psychologists’ – who will analyse those at the bottom of society, as if we were so many flitting, irrational amoeba under an eco-microscope. The organisers say the conference will explore how ‘denial’ is a product of both ‘addiction and consumption’ and is the ‘consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency and irresponsibility’. It is a testament to the dumbed-down, debate-phobic nature of the modern academy that a conference is being held not to explore ideas – to interrogate, analyse and fight over them – but to tag them as perverse.

We don’t have much to add, other than recommending that you take a moment to browse the conference programme and the outline of the afternoon’s Themed Groups session to get the full flavour of the event. (Links to Word files at the bottom of this page.) Here’s a taster:

It’s one thing – though a very important one – to understand environmental issues intellectually; quite another thing to feel them in our flesh and blood.  According to ecopsychologists, our alienation from flesh and blood experience plays a key role in our numb acceptance of planetary degradation and destruction. This workshop will use simple experiential exercises to help you connect more deeply with your own embodiment, and hence with the beauty and fragility of the other-than-human world.

It sounds like a great day’s entertainment if anyone fancies popping along. And all for only 50 quid.

We’ve alluded to Clockwork Orange (Clockwork Green?) when talking about psychologists’ attempts to get a piece of the climate change action. O’Neill goes with Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Psychologising dissent, and refusing to recognise, much less engage with, the substance of people’s disagreements – their political objections, their rational criticisms, their desire to do things differently – is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. In the Soviet Union, outspoken critics of the ruling party were frequently tagged as mentally disordered and faced, as one Soviet dissident described it, ‘political exile to mental institutions’ (11). There they would be treated with narcotics, tranquillisers and even electric shock therapy. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure our hero Winston Smith of his anti-party thinking. ‘You are mentally deranged!’ he tells him. Today the word ‘Orwellian’ is massively overused, to describe everything from fingerprint library cards to supermarket loyalty cards, but treating your dissenters as deranged? That really is Orwellian, and we should declare permanent war against it.

There are two sides to every debate, of course, so we’ll give the last word to O’Brien the torturer Dr Steven Moffic:

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