The Completely Cuckoo Climate Change Cyberspace Conspiracy Conspiracy

How long has it been since we last mentioned George Monbiot? The truth is that we simply got bored of his predictable column in the Guardian. Furthermore, we aren’t convinced that anyone actually takes him at all seriously, apart from the people who book him for media appearances. After all, his earnestness excites the vapid newswaves with the prospect of the end of the world. And there’s nothing more exciting than the end of the world, especially when the rest of the news is so mundane. But this week, George has surprised us.

Speaking for himself, as ever, George attempts to convince us that ‘online, planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’ and begins his argument by telling us that,

We all create our own reality…

Hmm. Not a good start. At this point, it’s hard to tell if George is giving us some kind of excuse for losing a grip on the objective world… a kind of my-truth-is-as-valid-as-your-truth caveat to everything he’s about to say, so that when challenged, he can smugly refer you to this relativistic axiom. Or is it just an apology for being a nutcase?

George certainly does create his own reality. It’s one in which his failure to make his reality yours is explained as the malign influence of other people, paid for by dark forces, distorting your reality. The bastards! This is a good definition of denial: what George can’t reflect on is the idea that his failure is the consequence of the shallowness of his own argument – you must be deluded. George continues,

…and shut out the voices we do not want to hear.

Of course. We’re the mad ones, George. Keep shutting out those, erm, voices.

Only the Plane Stupid protesters who occupied part of Stansted airport yesterday appear to have understood the scale and speed of this crisis. In cyberspace, by contrast, the response spreading fastest and furthest is flat-out denial.

That’s right, the self-indulgent teenage eco-toffs at Stansted know more about ‘The Realty’ than us hoi-polloi. But what is the substance of this reality?

The most popular article on the Guardian’s website last week was the report showing that 2008 is likely to be the coolest year since 2000. As the Met Office predicted, global temperatures have been held down by the LaNiña event in the Pacific Ocean. This news prompted a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy.

George is constructing his own reality again here, and rewriting history. At the beginning of the year, the Met Office ‘predicted’ world-record higher temperatures for 2007, with an error margin of just 0.06C. At the time of the ‘prediction’, the El Nino/La Nina oscillation was positive, having been climbing from negative over the course of the preceding year, and seemed to be continuing on its trajectory (indicating that an El Nino event was underway, and getting stronger). But by August 2007, the El Nino/La Nina oscillation had changed direction, and gone negative again, and global temperatures had diminished. The Met Office issued a new ‘prediction’, temperatures wouldn’t rise. Except that it’s not a prediction: it was already happening, and it is known that a consequence of La Nina is cooler global temperatures. Anyone who knows this could have made the same ‘prediction’, and it says absolutely nothing about the Met Office’s ability to make statements about climate change which are consistent with reality.

We wrote recently about the Guardian article Monbiot refers to, and the problems with it. Here.

George forgets the Met Office’s wrong prediction, to focus on the other, non prediction, which is equivalent to backing every horse in a race to sell yourself as a master tipster by telling people how often and how much you’ve won without revealing your losses.

George uses his fraudulent claim to have ‘facts’ on his side to make statements about the quality of comments to Guardian articles on the newspaper’sCommentisfree pages. Monbiot sees this as ‘a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy’. But judging the human world on the basis of comments to blogs makes about as much sense as judging the physical world on the bogus (yes, bogus) predictions made by the Met Office.

The new figures have prompted similar observations all over the web. Until now, the “sceptics” have assured us that you can’t believe the temperature readings at all; that the scientists at the Met Office, who produced the latest figures, are all liars; and that even if it were true that temperatures have risen, it doesn’t mean anything. Now the temperature record – though only for 2008 – can suddenly be trusted, and the widest possible inferences be drawn from the latest figures, though not, of course, from the records of the preceding century. This is madness.

King George lectures us on madness? He ought to know, after all. He’s taken one of two, contradicting predictions to make it appear that he is armed with the facts, against an enemy whose position he has constructed from comments on the Guardian’s site, that in fact bear no resemblance to the arguments you will find here, for example, or (and we apologise for presuming to lump ourselves in with the them) William M Briggs’s excellent blog, or Steve McIntyre’s, or Anthony Watts’. Monbiot constructs a fictitious argument against which he battles. What a brave hero. But Saint George has not yet slayed the dragon in his fantasy.

Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian’s forums, you’ll find endless claims that thehockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world’s glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn’t matter. The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible. To judge by the Comment threads, they have succeeded magnificently.

Memes, for readers who are not acquainted with the, erm, meme, were conceived of by Richard Dawkins. His theory, outlined as an afterthought in The Selfish Gene, was that ideas, or ‘units of cultural information’ are transmitted from host to host in a process that is analogous to genetics. An imperfect copying mechanism means that memes are subject to ‘transcription errors’ and so mutate, which according to this theory, might account for the creation of new ideas, or memes.

But the theory has an unavoidable and terrible consequence. If it is correct, it means that you – the thinking subject – are neither thinking, nor a subject. You are an unthinking object, merely responding to the memes that you are exposed to, like balls on a pool table. You might think that you’re thinking for yourself, but it’s just a clever illusion, perpetrated by complex systems of memes -memeplexes – for their own advantage in their competition to propagate themselves. 

This theory – abandonded by many of its original proponents – has persisted in certain ‘rationalist’ circles (in spite of it being a wholly unfalsifiable theory that has made no progress in the 32 years since it was proffered), particularly amongst angry atheists and biologicaldeterminists who struggle to understand why their scientism hasn’t been absorbed into the political mainstream. Like Dawkins . It allows them to explain their own failure to create convincing arguments in pathological terms. Let us not mince our words about this theory, using it to explain anything about the social world is sheer pseudoscience. Ironically, it has greatest currency in the strange world of Internet conspiracy theorists, who are convinced that ‘the truth is out there’, but that ‘They’ don’t want you to know about it.

Monbiot is highly selective about what obstacles in his battle for the truth are ‘memes’. After all if the idea that ‘the hockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked’ is a ‘meme’, why isn’t the idea that it hasn’t been debunked a ‘meme’? The problem with memes is that you can never arrive at the truth, because you’ve undermined the very notion of ‘truth’ – it’s just a meme – andrelativised it into meaninglessness. Any application of ‘logic’ – which must be a meme – to the ‘facts’ – which must also be memes – simply reduces to a competition between memes for the resources in your head.

And what about the environmental ‘memes’ that we know to be false, or wildly exaggerated – for example the lie continually propagated by Monbiot that he’s absorbed from Greenpeace’s website?

After consistent campaigning by Greenpeace through ExxonSecrets,  ExxonMobil was forced, in 2006, to drop funding to some of its key allies in the campaign to deny climate science and delay policy action The Competitive Enterprise Institute was the key group dropped – it had received $2.2 million fromExxonMobil since 1998, more than any other thinktank.  But the relationship continues as CEI’s climate operatives continue to work closely with the other think tanks funded by Exxon.

As we pointed out last year, if the biggest recipients of ‘fuel lobby’ funding was the CEI, which received just $2.2 million dollars over the course of 8 years ($275,000 a year – hardly big money), in return for generating ‘memes’, then it needs to be seen in the context of the environmental movement’s budget formemetic engineering. As we revealed, Greenpeace, the engineers of the memes, had at their disposal over $2 billion over the same time frame. Conservation NGO, the WWF between 2003-7 recorded income of $2.5 billion. If cash buys you memes, then why are the poorly-funded sceptics so much better at creating them?

The idea that Exxon have ‘bought’ the debate does not stand up to scrutiny. Yet the lie persists. That’s not because it’s a successful ‘meme’, but because it’s a convenient way of moralising the debate, and robbing it of any nuance. Lying is the only way people likeMonbiot can clothe themselves in moral fibre.

Monbiot then explores a new idea about why his message hasn’t gone mainstream.

In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix.

Yeah? Where did you hear that, Georges?

According to this logic, then, it can be no accident that Marshall and Monbiot, and for that matter Mark Lynas and Oliver tickell all think alike, because they all lived very near to each other in Oxford – where Caroline Lucas, Green MEP rose to prominence. Their views must have homogenised as they smugly quaffed organic wine at eco-parties, and rubbed minds as they rubbed shoulders. Monbiot continues the nauseating double entendre of memetic procreation:

Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we’ll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.

But again, this concept of our being the mindless vessels of ideas reduces our subjectivity, and leaves the Oxonian circle-penetrators with no greater claim to objectivity than the rest of us. Even if we seek ideas that yield a ‘reward’, it’s not hard to see what rewards have been sought byMonbiot and his circle, all of whom have elevated themselves into the limelight on the back of their ethical claims. They’ve sold many books. They are on TV. They have risen to positions of influence over the British establishment. They make money from the ‘ethical’ businesses they are involved in. And so on.

Monbiot seems to be making a claim that our weak wills leave us vulnerable to convenient conspiracy theories. And yet what argument has he been trying to sustain? Ah, yes, the idea that ‘planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’.Monbiot’s theory is that there has been a conspiracy to create a conspiracy theory.

Marshall is right: we have to change the way we talk about this issue. You don’t believe me? Then just read the gibberish that follows when this article is published online.

Monbiot is frustrated that he has failed to convince people of his perspective. But rather than reflect on his own argument, which, as we can see is constructed out of sheer bullshit, he finds ways to show faults with people – ordinary, normal, everyday people, not just ‘bloggers’ – and damns the entire human race in the process. We are unthinking automata, objects, blindly obeying the forces that surround us. Only he knows the truth. But the truth that most people can sense is that Monbiot uses the status of scientific factoids, such as the Met Office’s dubious ‘prediction’ to convince people in the same way that a caveman seeks to persuade people with a club. Second, it is transparent to most people thatMonbiot is mischaracterising the arguments of the people he sets himself up in opposition to – he doesn’t answer objections, and he makes straw men out of the flame-war battlefield that is the comments section oncommentisfree instead of picking up on the arguments that are actually being made. Third, he clearly overstates the relationship between these messages and a conspiracy of vested interests. Fourth, he diminishes the moral character of anyone who takes a different perspective to him. Fifth, he diminishes the intelligence of anyone who sees things differently to him. But the biggest problem for Monbiot is that the second, third, fourth and fifth are, he seems to believe, logical and necessary consequences of the first. He seems to think that, because the Met Office ‘predicted’ the 2008 temperature record (and they didn’t), then he is right to characterise his opponents as he pleases, he is right to think that silly comments on blogs represent the influence of an oil-industry conspiracy, and so on.

And we can see why Monbiot fails to reflect on his own argument. Because if he could, he would realise what an embarrassing lunatic he has turned himself into.

The Ethics of 'the Ethics of Climate Change'

James Garvey didn’t like Ben’s review of his book on Culture Wars. But instead of responding to it, he seems to have merely laid out the same argument again.

Science can give us a grip on the fact of climate change. (For a start, have a look here: We know that temperatures are rising; the sea level is rising too; sea ice is thinning; permafrost is melting; glaciers are in world-wide retreat; ElNino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense; and on and on. We know that our fellow creatures are already suffering as a result of climate change. We know that human beings are suffering too and that they will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. That’s larger than the number they give for people displaced by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from frozen sources which are likely to dry up in the years to come. There is a lot of suffering underway and on the cards. It’s this suffering which makes climate change a moral problem.

Again, Garvey defers the understanding of the problem to ‘science’, and directs us to the IPCC. There are two main problems with this. First, the IPCC is not beyond scientific challenge as Garvey suggests it is. Second, the imperatives seemingly generated by that scientific definition of the problems – even if the science is true – do not follow necessarily from it. Yes, we may well be inducing climate change, but there may be – in fact, there is – a moral argument that places industrial and economic development over mitigation, in spite of its effect on the environment. Garvey just doesn’t get it. But science cannot and must not be allowed to generate moral and political imperatives. To allow it to do so is to undermine Garvey’s own discipline. In doing so, the best he can offer from moral philosophy is a reduction of complicated scientific, political, and economic arguments to facile comparisons of ‘business as usual’ to ‘standing around, watching a child drown’. Garvey’s inconsequential and trite prose isn’t moral philosophy, it is just standard moral posturing.

But, if Garvey wants to wave science around as a moral weapon, let us look at his understanding of the ‘science’. He says that “we know that…”

“… temperatures are rising”.
But we also know that they are falling. It’s very clear from the following graph that temperatures are lower in recent months (in fact, lower than at any point) than they were a decade ago, according to any of the four main observations. There doesn’t seem to have been much warming over the period either. Of course, this is not to say that there is ‘no such thing as man-made global warming’. The problem is with factoids like ‘temperatures are rising’ being used to arm moral and political arguments. Facts and data require interpretation. Factoids require bins.

“… the sea level is rising”

As indeed they have been for quite some time, at various rates. As IPCC TAR shows there has been 120 meters of sea level rise in the last 20 thousand years. Sea level rose nearly 20cm over the last century – little, if any of which could be attributed to global warming – without too much fuss. Why is it suddenly so problematic? Whether or not human CO2 has contributed to sea-level rise, and whether or not it will continue to, or make things worse, mitigation will have very little effect in the near and mid term, and the problem of ‘natural’ sea level rise will still exist, regardless of what we do or do not do.

“… sea ice is thinning”
Arctic ice extent – not thinning – does seem to be following a negative trend.

But the Antarctic shows the opposite trend.

So to what extent can we say “sea ice is thinning”? What was the rate ‘before’, and how is it different now? What ‘should’ it be doing? In fact, there isn’t much data available. AsIPCC AR4 reports, “Thickness data, especially from submarines, are available but restricted to the central Arctic, where they indicate thinning of approximately 40% between the period 1958 to 1977 and the 1990s. This is likely an overestimate of the thinning over the entire arctic region however.” There is no substance to the claim that Garvey makes. The science is most certainly not in.

“… permafrost is melting”
While this poses some practical problems for people, melting permafrost also creates positives, with new areas being opened up for human use in agriculture. Expensive action to mitigate climate change creates little or no net benefit, especially given that we are, apparently, committed to some level of climate change, leaving fewer resources available to local adaptation. As we often say, ‘environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy’. We mitigate at the expense of our ability to adapt, which makes it a destructive folly. Garvey can only think of one course of action to follow because he needs there to be a black-and-white matter of absolutes and imperatives. He doesn’t want us to be able to do a cost/benefit analysis on human terms. Furthermore, we know that permafrost was melting anyway, before any human-induced change.

“… glaciers are in world-wide retreat”
They were anyway. As IPCC AR4 reports “Most mountain glaciers and ice caps have been shrinking, with the retreat probably having started about 1850 [NB: the end of the ‘little ice age’]. Although many Northern Hemisphere glaciers had a few years ofnearbalance around 1970, this was followed by increased shrinkage.”

“… El Nino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense”.
This is simply nonsense. Here is a graph, plotting ENO since 1950

There has not been any unusually intense or persistent El Nino event since 1997/8. A graph we posted back in April shows the danger of looking at ENO to substantiate claims made about anthropogenic global warming.

This goes to show that temperatures are more closely related to ENO than temperatures are related to CO2, let alone ENO is related to CO2. Hence the Hadley Centre’s making of some fairly safe bets, but changing them, not as new scientific evidence emerges, but according to what they expect theENO to do in the near future, or is already doing. Claims made by sceptics that the effects
of the current ENO as it enters a negative episode, since last year, yielded temperature anomalies much lower than in recent years (in fact, very much average at near zero), have been waved away by alarmists claiming that they are the result of ‘natural variability’. So, isENO the product of anthropogenic CO2, or the source of natural variability? This is a question Garvey does not seem to ask nor answer, yet wants to draw moral authority from, as though it had been answered.

From the science, Garvey moves on to the human effects, as if they were inevitable.

We know that our fellow creatures are already suffering as a result of climate change. We know that human beings are suffering too and that they will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. That’s larger than the number they give for people displaced by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from frozen sources which are likely to dry up in the years to come. There is a lot of suffering underway and on the cards. It’s this suffering which makes climate change a moral problem.

The first thing to point out is that an ‘environmental refugee’ is not the same thing as a ‘climate change refugee’, let alone a human-induced-climate-change refugee. The claim that people are ‘already suffering as a result of climate change’ is totally unsupported. Climate is a problem for people, regardless of whether it is changing or not. The Red Cross, never mind scientists, however noble their intentions, cannot make the distinction between a human caused climate event, and a ‘natural’ climate change event. And what is spectacularly absent from this kind of calculation is the extent to which industrialisation – the process which has put distance between environmental effects and human suffering, and which is blamed for causing climate change – has obviously reduced the extent of human suffering. It has brought benefits to a great deal more people than 25 million, and is evidently what is missing from the lives of the vast majority of those 25 million ‘climate refugees’. It is this absence of development which is the problem, not the fact of different climatic conditions. But without this form of environmental determinism, Garvey cannot make a case that climate change demands a new ethical perspective on ‘equality’.

Science can give us the facts, but we need something more if we want to act on the basis of those facts. The something more has at least a little to do with what we think is right, with justice, with responsibility, with what we value, with what matters to us. You cannot find that sort of thing in an ice core. You have to think your way through it. It helps to start small, with everyday thoughts about doing the right thing.

And without that form of environmental determinism to provide him with imperatives, Garvey would find it very difficult to explain what ‘justice’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘values’ actually are. It is only in the face of a problem that he can generate any meaning to provide these terms with. He can’t conceive, for example, of an argument for equality in human terms, he needs environmental crisis in order to legitimise an argument for negative equality. He can’t conceive of an argument for justice without a crime. Not, notice, a crime against a person, but a crime against the environment, which is later visited on people by consequence. This is ‘environmental justice’. He cannot conceive of any human values without connecting humans to the environment. This empty perspective is finally shown in his appeal that we ‘start small, with everyday thoughts about doing the right thing’ – he cannot conceive of big things like solving the material inequalities that allow people to suffer from the effects of climate. He cannot conceive of a genuine form of justice, where people are protected from the climate. He doesn’t value that sort of justice. He doesn’t think we have that kind of responsibility. This ‘thinking small’ mentality barely registers as even thinking at all. According to this ‘small’ doctrine, justice is done, equality is achieved, and your responsibilities are met by having a shower instead of bath, recycling your newspapers, and not using plastic bags. Who would have thought that ending world poverty was so spectacularly easy?

If walking past a drowning child is wrong, particularly when one is well-placed to help, then the West is doing something wrong by carrying on with business as usual. It amounts to walking past, to doing nothing, in the face of human suffering. It stands out even more given the West’s capacity to do the right thing. Maybe it’s a kind of moral outrage.

Garvey compares our ‘inaction’ on climate change to walking past the drowning child. Perhaps Garvey doesn’t sense any problem with this patronisation of both his readers and those he wishes to save from climate change.

Yes, the industrialised world can help the developing world. But, only by virtue of its industrialisation – the very thing that ‘the ethics of climate change’ asks us to turn back the clock on. All he has to offer the poorer inhabitants of the planet – assuming firstly that the ‘science’ is true, and secondly that mitigation will have any noticeable effect – is marginally different weather. Slightly different weather will not end poverty. It will not create opportunities for development, it will not even make soil more fertile, nor irrigate fields. It will not change the economic or political circumstances in the Third World. All it will do is put a greater number of the world’s population into a relationship with nature where human suffering is far more directly influenced by environmental changes; it is a necessary fact that increasing your dependence on nature makes you more vulnerable to it. As we have said before, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These are the ‘ethics’ of climate change. What they reveal is an intellectually bankrupt moral philosophy, which cannot conceive of the world in terms other than culpability and victimhood; it lacks a positive conception of ‘good’. This in turn reflects the political exhaustion which drives political elites towards such vapid ethical constructions to attach themselves to. It is only by jumping aboard such a hollow vessel as ‘the ethics of climate change’ that today’s politicians can claim to be offering the world anything, without actually committing themselves to anything meaningful. But in truth, this is a ship of fools.

Despite Garvey’s claims that there is more to understanding climate change than the ‘science’, without the ‘science’ narrating the apocalyptic story driving environmental ethics, there is nothing for the moral philosopher to consider; it is ‘unethical’ not to ‘do something’ to ‘combat climate change’. Therefore, the only role that ethical philosophy plays is in explaining – rather than informing – the decision to ‘act’. Garvey asks us to take the scientific ‘facts’ of the matter for granted. But the truth is there are many ways other than mitigation to approach climate problems – whether or not it is changing, and whether or not we are causing change. He claims that science provides facts which cannot be questioned. But by forcing ‘nature’ and ‘science’ between people with environmental determinism, he naturalises the way real people actually relate, and demands that people accept the limits that he sets for them, and lower their expectations. It prevents a genuine understanding of real inequalities in the world in favour of a hollow, surrogate system of ethics that exploits images of inequality for its own ends and offers nothing other than an empty promise not to make it worse.