Science-Based Catchphrase-Making

The Bush administration’s unorthodox stance on climate change and stem-cell research led to widespread accusations that it conducted a war on science. The Democrats’ response has been to promise to ‘let science guide us, not ideology’, to ‘make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology’, and that ‘the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over’.

But in the latest issue of Issues in Science & Technology, Dan Sarewitz shows that, on the evidence of Obama’s presidency so far, science-led policy-making is easier said than done. Take Obama’s moves to change US stem-cell policy. Bush infamously restricted the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research, limiting research to existing stem-cell lines. Writes Sarewitz:

Less than two months into his presidency, Obama announced that he would reverse the Bush policies by allowing research on cell lines created after the Bush ban. The president instructed the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to “develop guidelines for the support and conduct of responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research.”

In announcing the change, President Obama emphasized the need to “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” yet the new policy, as well as the language that the president used to explain it, underscores that the stem cell debate is in important ways not about scientific facts at all, but about the difficulty of balancing competing moral preferences. The new policy does not allow unrestricted use of embryos for research or the extraction of cell lines from embryos created by therapeutic cloning. In explaining that “[m]any thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” President Obama was acknowledging that, even in its earliest stages, the small group of cells that constitute an embryo are in some way different from a chemical reagent to be sold in a catalog or an industrially synthesized molecule to be integrated into a widget. Indeed, to protect women from economic and scientific exploitation, and in deference to the moral and political ambiguity that embryos carry with them, no nation allows the unrestricted commodification of embryos, and some, including Germany, have bans on destroying embryos for research purposes. Although most Americans favor a less restrictive approach to stem cell research than that pursued by President Bush, the issue is inherently political and inherently moral. Thus, some of the cell lines approved for research under the Bush restrictions might actually not be approved under the Obama guidelines because they may not have been obtained with the appropriate level of prior informed consent of the donor, a moral constraint on science that apparently did not concern President Bush.

Or take Obama’s decision to slash funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository:

At this point it is tempting to write: “It’s hard to imagine a case where politics trumped science more decisively than in the case of Yucca Mountain, where 20 years of research were traded for five electoral votes and the support of a powerful senator,” which seems basically correct, but taken out of context it could be viewed as a criticism of President Obama, which it is not. But the point I want to make is only slightly more subtle: Faced with a complex amalgam of scientific and political factors, President Obama chose short-term political gain over longer-term scientific assessment, and so decided to put an end to research aimed at characterizing the Yucca Mountain site. This decision can easily be portrayed in the same type of language that was used to attack President Bush’s politicization of science.

But not only is science-led politics difficult, if not impossible, it is also potentially dangerous. Sarewitz concludes:

… ownership of a powerful symbol can give rise to demagoguery and self-delusion. President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq. In turn, a scientific-technological elite unchecked by healthy skepticism and political pluralism may well indulge in its own excesses. Cults of expertise helped bring us the Vietnam War and the current economic meltdown. Uncritical belief in and promotion of the redemptive power of scientific and technological advance is implicated in some of the most difficult challenges facing humans today. In science, Democrats appear to have discovered a surprisingly potent political weapon. Let us hope they wield it with wisdom and humility.

Ragin' Roberts

Over at Gristmill, the angry David Roberts gets his knickers in a twist about an email list:

Barnes gets his information on climate change the same place everyone in the right-wing media world gets it: from Marc Morano, the in-house blogger/agitator for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Morano’s entire job is to aggregate every misleading factoid, every attack on climate science or scientists, every crank skeptical statement from anyone in the world and send it all out periodically in email blasts that get echoed throughout the right-wing blog world and eventually find their way into places like Fox News and the Weekly Standard. From there they go, via columnists like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, into mainstream outlets like Newsweek and the Washington Post.

How did we know about Roberts’s latest blog post? Well, we got an email from Marc Morano about it.

Roberts finishes his otherwise pointless post with the very revealing words,

The conservative movement gets its information about climate science from the office of James Inhofe.

What more really needs to be said?

Well, quite a bit more really needs to be said. Such as what is supposed to be wrong with that, even if it were true? Which it isn’t, as there are a number of email list servers of interest to sceptics. And it’s not as if there are no green newswires spewing less than perfect information. And it’s not as if that transparently false information never comes from Grist.

As we discovered a year ago, for example, when Professor Andrew Dessler wrote on Grist that the IPCC consisted of thousands of climate scientists, all uniquely qualified to look after the sick planet, and that we ought to ignore social scientists and computer programmers. Unfortunately for him, we pointed out that the IPCC in fact consisted of a great number of social scientists and computer programmers – we counted them. Dessler was hoisted by his own petard. But he continued his tired analogy, just as Roberts and his ilk trot out the same old lines about oil-industry-funded-corporate-shills, the scale and the substance of the ‘scientific consensus’, and of course, the equivalence of climate scepticism and conservatism, all of which, many times, have been shown to lack foundation. They are myths. This makes it all the more a surprise that Roberts once uttered these words:

Long-time greens are painfully aware that the arguments of global warming skeptics are like zombies in a ’70s B movie. They get shot, stabbed, and crushed, over and over again, but they just keep lurching to their feet and staggering forward. That’s because — news flash! — climate skepticism is an ideological, not a scientific, position, and as such it bears only a tenuous relationship to scientific rules of evidence and inference.

Roberts’ inability to self-reflect is painfully obvious to anybody who is not him. As we pointed out, scepticism cannot be in itself ideological. On the other hand, Environmentalism – which, after all, demands that we reorganise the global economy, monitor every productive endeavour, and regulate lifestyle – is an ideology. But it hides its politics behind science. ‘Science’ is environmentalism’s fig leaf. Behind the green veneer is its shame.

What a cautious lifting of the fig leaf reveals is that the object of Roberts’ anger is democracy itself. He doesn’t seem to like people having email lists with which to communicate ideas. Just as he doesn’t like people being able to travel, or to consume according to their own needs and desires.

Accordingly, Roberts needs to turn democratic expression into a subversive, nefarious activity. In this fantasy, what are in fact normal forms of communication appear as sinister conspiracies. Two people knowing each other is an element… a cell… of a dark network standing against science…. truth itself.

But the reality is that the recipients of Morano’s emails are people who can see for themselves what an email from a – shock horror – Conservative actually consists of.  We’re not conservatives, and you don’t have to be a conservative, for example, to know that when James Hansen says that there are just four years left to save the planet, he’s talking unmitigated BS. And yet it was an email from Marc Morano which first drew our attention to the story. It’s just a way of distributing news. Everybody who comments on the news is connected to many similar services. We get daily digests on topics from the newspapers themselves, from Government departments, NGOs, Quangos, political parties, charities, and from Google news alerts. Some of these sources are neutral. Some have a clearer agenda.

Of course, Sen. Inhofe is a Conservative. But his take on the climate issue is a little deeper than Roberts gives him credit for.

It is becoming increasingly clear that man-made global warming is not a partisan left vs. right issue. It is a scientific question and the promoters of global warming fears now realize they have significantly overreached.

Roberts frames the debate as ‘Science versus Conservatives’. But it doesn’t stand. Roberts can’t tell left from right, forward from backward, progressive from retrogressive, sceptic from conservative, liberal from deeply illiberal. As we recently said of George Monbiot, he

… emerges dizzy from his own spinning and thinks it is the world that’s confused about what direction it is moving in. And this is his fundamental problem. Everything he writes is a projection of his own inability to understand a world that fails to conform to his expectations. The ideas he uses to orientate himself fail to give him purchase on his own existential crisis; they crumble underfoot.

Like Monbiot, Roberts see a challenge to his perspective as a catastrophe. He cannot countenance dissent. It would be the end of the world. Roberts’ can only explain his objection to conservatism in terms of environmental catastrophe, because he doesn’t possess a principled, coherent objection. Fantasy takes the place of insight and shrill posturing the place of careful argument.

Cut and Paste Journalism

BBC bosses today tried to make excuses for the cut-and-paste job by BBC science journalist, Susan Watts, as discovered by Tony at Harmless Sky recently. Answering criticism on Watts’ blog, Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon said:

We did edit sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to Science. The aim was to give people an impression or montage of what Obama said about science in his inauguration speech. This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying. You can look for yourself above.

If this is true, it means that the editorial team at BBC Newsnight are shockingly naive. If that is true, then we would like to know, what are they doing producing the networks flagship current affairs magazine programme?

Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt with respect to their editorial oversight, by which we mean that we accept that they are naive, the feature drips with the kind of ideological prejudice that any run-of-the-mill eco-warrior can muster. This is not news, nor is it analysis. It is projection.

Here is a transcript of the feature, Restoring science to its rightful place, with our commentary.

OBAMA: We will restore science to its rightful place [snip] roll back the spectre of a warming planet [snip] we will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

As has been pointed out, this is a cut and paste job, which sets up the background to Watts’ presentation. Peter Rippon claims this has been done innocently, and that ‘fades between each point’ underscore the ‘montage’ of different parts of Obama’s speech, as an ‘impression’ of what he had said, not what he had actually said. But these images are not of Obama, but of a victorian green house in London’s Kew Gardens. Why would different shots of 19th Century greenhouse architecture make it obvious to viewers that what they were hearing was a ‘montage’?

WATTS: President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today, and for most scientists, his vote of confidence will have come not a moment too soon.

So here is Watts’ naked position: Bush was anti science. And now ‘most scientists’ are happy because Bush is gone. Bush = anti-science; Obama = pro-science. Bush is a baddy, and Obama is a goody. Science says so. It proves it. Understand?

Watts says that Obama ‘couldn’t have been clearer’, but she had to splice his words together to get him to make her point.

You don’t need to be a Bush fan to find this kind of retrospective shallow. We’re not Bush fans. Yet, throughout the last eight years, what has struck us is that science has become the stick with which to beat Bush, not because he really stood against science, but because his critics – not just the Democrats – lacked any real substance either. That is to say, as we have in the past, that science is a last-resort of vacuous politics: it fails to make a persuasive case on its own terms, and so borrows authority from ‘science’. Like trying to use ‘science’ to prove that something is immoral, what this reveals is the intellectual exhaustion of the critic.

Watts continues:

In the eight years of the Bush presidency, the world saw the Arctic ice cap shrink to a record Summer low, the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions, and warnings from scientists shift from urgent to panicky.

So Bush melted the ice cap, right?

There has certainly been a shift in rhetoric from ‘urgent to panicky’, but that shift is not justified by ‘the science’. The IPCC’s AR4 gave no reason to believe that thermageddon was any closer than it was when its predecessor AR3 came out. To make it sound like it did, environmentalist commentators – notably those at the BBC – also had to cut and paste.

And as we have pointed out recently, the panicky tone of environmentalists is owed not to the emergence of new climate research but to their need to sustain leverage over a sympathetic establishment. In fact, the big stories over the last few years – the prospect of an Arctic free of summer ice, fears about peak oil after price hikes, and predictions of ‘warmest summers on record’ – all failed to materialise. If recent history shows anything, it is that environmentalists have reached the point of peak doom.

President Bush came to power at the start of a new decade, a new century, and what many thought would be a new era for science. The news that scientists had pieced together an early draft of the human genome had given a palpable lift to the end of the Clinton presidency.

There are many things you can say about the end of the Clinton administration, but ‘palpable lift’ isn’t really one of them. Clinton’s years were characterised by scandal and political crisis, offset by a very aggressive foreign policy – pretty much what the ensuing Bush administration consisted of. For example, as CNN reported in 1998:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Saying “there will be no sanctuary for terrorists,” President Clinton on Thursday said the U.S. strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a facility in Sudan are part of “a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism.” […]

The president said he ordered the strike against bin Laden and his compatriots because of “compelling information they were planning additional terrorist attacks against our citizens and others with the inevitable collateral casualties and .. seeking to acquire chemical weapons and other dangerous weapons.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? As it turned out, the Sudanese factory Clinton bombed turned out to be making pharmaceuticals, not WMD. Just a few months later:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — From the Oval Office, President Clinton told the nation Wednesday evening why he ordered new military strikes against Iraq. The president said Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors presented a threat to the entire world. “Saddam (Hussein) must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons,” Clinton said.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? The point we are making here is that it is difficult for people – journalists especially – to locate territory from which to criticise Bush. Clearly, the War on Terror – and all its rhetoric – had roots in the Clinton era. The Bush administration doesn’t look so different, after all. Different styles, maybe, but the same substance. Unless, as Watts claims, they took different positions on science:

Science was riding high. But Bush was less attentive.

But According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, things aren’t so simple:

How can it be said that Bush was ‘anti-science’ if, as the AAAS seem to indicate, research budgets increased during his administration? In ignorance of what she speaks, Watts continues:

Religion, or at least the religious vote, informed Bush policy. His very public distaste for stem-cell research mattered because it raised public suspicion of science. Creationism has grown stronger, to the point that more Americans now believe in the biblical story of creation than evolution.

It’s not as much Bush’s hostility to ‘science’ that Watts worries about, but the failure of his critics to use ‘science’ to influence public policy. One may well say that Bush’s policies didn’t reflect ‘scientific’ opinion. But the point we have made here, many times, is that science cannot produce moral arguments. Science cannot tell you that it is ‘right’ to abort or research on a foetus. These matters, which seemingly characterise the debate that was influenced by religious attitudes, are only illuminated by science to the extent that it says what may be possible to achieve. The problem, as we have outlined in the past, is that Bush’s critics hide their shame – their inability to make moral arguments – behind science. It is a fig leaf.

Watts is deeply confused. According to her, it is ‘the religious vote’ that influences Bush. But in the very next sentence, it is Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ that raises public suspicion, seemingly with the effect of increasing the prevalence of creationism. One moment, Bush is weak because he respond to the vote, the next he is able to manipulate it. Whether we agree with Bush or not, Watts’ complaint is that Bush succeeded in making an argument to the public through the democratic process. Her complaint is with democracy. The science that Watts believes trumps democracy is good, old fashioned arrogance.

And anyway, where did Watts get the idea that adherence to Biblical interpretations of life on Earth increased under Bush? Not from Gallup, which has data going back to 1982:

Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ is a favorite of those wishing to cast him in the role of enemy of science. But Watts’ statement simplifies the political reality to the point that it bears no relationship to the truth. US policy requires that Federal funds cannot be used for research on embryonic stem cells. State-sponsored researchers can and do work on stem cells from other sources. And meanwhile, university researchers can and do work on embryonic stem cells – just so long as they don’t use federal funds (which makes for some complicated partitioning of lab equipment in many a US university department). For what it’s worth, we, too, are not impressed by US stem-cell policies. But neither are we impressed by the simplistic portrayal of Bush’s stance, especially when the US’s regulation of embryonic SC research is mirrored in the policies of a host of European nations, including such models of Liberal democracy as Germany and Denmark.

Watts:

Scientists have got used to attempts to silence them. But now they are speaking out again. Unlike economic recession and wars which pass, climate change does not and there are deadlines if we want to avoid a point of no return. In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.

On her blog, Watts expands on her claims that scientists have been silenced, in a post that Asher Mullard, an editor at the science journal Nature, describes as ‘a meaty overview of a light at the end of the tunnel after 8 long years for scientists’…

Just last week a Nasa scientist, Jim Hansen, whom Bush had tried to silence in the past warned that Obama has just four years to save the world. But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already promoted many to top advisory positions… crucially on energy policy.

We’ve dealt with Hansen’s ‘four years to save the world’ claim elsewhere. But note that, in Watts’ world, the speculative splutterings of a single rogue scientist become ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world’.

If Bush did try to silence Hansen, he didn’t try very hard. Hansen has barely been out of the news this century. According to the Washington Times:

A NASA scientist who said the Bush administration muzzled him because of his belief in global warming yesterday acknowledged to Congress that he’d done more than 1,400 on-the-job interviews in recent years.

To pick but one example from his vast output, in 2007, we reported on Hansen’s 3000-word article in New Scientist where he claimed that sea level rise will be orders of magnitude faster than IPCC projections suggest. When the same magazine, in the same month, reported on Harvard scientist Willie Soon’s paper in the journal Ecological Complexity, which challenged received wisdom that climate change is imperilling polar bears, the scientific argument was ignored in favour of speculation about Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry, and that the research was part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the environmental movement’s use of the polar bear as an icon. Who’s being silenced?

Hansen is Watts’ representative scientist. And yet he departs from ‘the consensus’ as spectacularly as any executive of ExxonMobil – he just happens to do so in a more politically correct direction.

Back to the transcript:

But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already appointed several to leading advisory positions. And although he has to deal with internal squabbles about whether cap and trade or a carbon tax is the best way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, at least the Obama team does agree on the goal.

As did all the other presidential candidates. And as do the Socialist Workers, the UK Conservative Party, the far-right British National Party and everybody else.

So Obama has a unique opportunity to fix the recession and fix climate change at the same time. He just has to have the nerve to follow through. And this year of all years, leadership matters, because the world hopes to thrash out a global deal to cut emissions. So if he does stick to his promises on renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and hybrid vehicles, he’ll help loosen the grip that fossil fuels hold on all our lives.

So Obama can fix the recession and save the world from global warming… But why stop there? Maybe we could ask him to find a cure for cancer and the common cold too, by next week? Oh, and then there’s that eternal question he could answer – ‘why are we here?’ Obama’s to-do list grows as the people reporting on his progress empty their heads of reason. Watts’ analysis is, as we said at the beginning of this post, not journalism, but projection. Her story says nothing about Obama and his policies, nor does it accurately reflect the role of science and its relationship with public policy, nor does it even give a plausible account of the last decade’s political developments. It doesn’t even tell you anything useful about climate change. It is all about Watts, her hopes and her prejudices, informed only by ignorance, hidden behind a veneer of scientific authority.

There’s another question perhaps Obama can answer by, like, yesterday: what are science correspondents actually for?

Infinite Regress

In a recent post, we looked at some of Green MEP Caroline Lucas’s arguments for action on climate change. One of them has stuck with us as especially absurd, and merits further attention:

this planet has finite resources. You cannot go on growing indefinitely on a finite planet. 

This appeal to ‘physics’ pops up frequently in environmental debates. Interestingly, it’s a tactic also popular with Creationists and their ilk, who cite Newton’s second law of thermodynamics to suggest that evolution contradicts fundamental physical truths. In each case, a woolly argument about how the world should be is patched up with sciency-sounding facts, figures and laws. This is not the tactic of groups confident about their political position; it is a sign of the desperation of groups that are failing to capture the imagination of the world’s population.

In Lucas’s world, the appeal to physics is used as an argument against economic growth and technological development. It is principally a criticism of capitalism, which requires growth and is, therefore, inherently environmentally destructive. It is worth repeating a point we made at the time. The objection to capitalism on the grounds that it contradicts physical laws is a departure from prior objections to capitalism from the Left and is not a criticism of the kind that we would expect the Left to produce. Instead of offering a description of social problems – for example poverty – arising from the social relations produced by capitalism, Lucas seeks to explain social phenomena in terms of geological and biological processes. This is similar to James Garvey’s claims in The Ethics of Climate Change, which appeals to scientific authority to make a case for environmental determinism. In Lucas’s argument, there is a causal chain, from capitalism, via the natural world, to social problems such as poverty, which can be described ‘scientifically’.

Lucas might argue that she could hold both positions simultaneously. But if that were the case, why would it be necessary to emphasise the environmental aspect, let alone mention it at all, given that the social, human-centric perspective is a lot more powerful? The major reason is that the two perspectives are irreconcilable. One looks at social problems as the product of social relations, the other looks at social problems as the consequence of exceeding ‘natural’ limits – ‘unsustainability’. They are further contradictory because we can conceive of non-capitalist growth which is, in the green lexicon, ‘environmentally unfriendly’, but which produces a social good – we could build dams, relocate cities away from coasts, reclaim coasts, create ways for the developing world to have much cheaper access to energy and industrialise agricultural production, and so on. We can also conceive of capitalist growth that is environmentally destructive and yet produces a social good. After all, it’s not as if cars and labour-saving devices and all that stuff have no utility and have been foisted upon people against their will. And it’s not as if economic and technological growth has occurred against a backdrop of lower living standards and declining indicators of social progress. On the contrary, things have got better and better. Lucas – who is unable to make the argument that things are worse in order to challenge capitalism – needs to make the argument that things are about to get worse, and that development of any kind is necessarily environmentally destructive, and so creates a haunting spectre of ‘unsustainability’ and imminent social, ecological and economic collapse.

In this respect, Lucas does not offer us a principled objection to capitalism – she claims that it is wrong in the same way that arguments against gravity would be wrong. Whatever your thoughts about capitalism happen to be, and even if you still believe that environmentalism is a continuation of socialism, it is worth recognising environmentalism’s distance from the traditional Left. It highlights the Left’s political exhaustion, and the environmental movement’s intellectual bankruptcy.

On a similar note, it is not true that notions of sustainable development are antithetical to the economic Right or capitalism. After all Malthus, on whose ideas Lucas’s are based, was a classical economist, whose ideas were debunked by Marx himself. More contemporary conservatives have also embraced the rhetoric of ‘sustainability:

The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development. Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century 

The second problem with Lucas’s argument is that her conception of ‘resources’ is itself flawed. Malthusians – especially environmentalists – misconceive resources as ‘substance’. In a finite universe, never mind a finite world, all substances are of course finite. If our ‘dependence’ on Earth’s resources are ‘unsustainable’ because they are finite, then so too would our much more real dependence on solar, wind and tidal power, be ultimately unsustainable. They are not merely unsustainable in the sense that one day the sun – which drives all renewable sources – will collapse, they are also unsustainable because continued and increasing dependence on this form of energy itself cannot be sustained against growing numbers of people – there is only a limited amount of recoverable energy entering the system at any time. According to environmentalists, this is why we must therefore limit the number of people and ration the amount of energy they are entitled to. We are in favour of some of the large projects which have been conceived of as part of a ‘post-carbon economy’ for their own sake, particularly the idea of large, solar energy collecting arrays. Covering the uninhabited land of the Sahara with solar panels, for example, might provide 50 times the power used currently across the globe. But such projects, including hydro-electric, are met by environmentalists with anxiety about the environmental destruction that large scale developments necessarily cause. And, as we have seen, Environmentalists are against environmental destruction, even where it produces a social benefit.

And anyway, development itself is not intrinsically bad for nature. First, as economies develop, they are inclined to pay increasing attention to the environmental effects of development as wealth allows. Compare the once filthy development in the West to the comparatively cleaner industries of today. Even the destructive process of open-cast mining reinstates wilderness. Indeed, yesterday’s open cast mines are today’s nature reserves. They are clean ecological slates on which Mother Nature can work her magic of colonisation and succession, and are often home to rare, specialist species that are not found elsewhere. Similarly, landfill sites are recovered and repopulated with trees, and what’s more, nobody would want to develop on top of them, whereas nature hardly cares. Second, technological development allows for the possibility of moving away from a dependence on natural processes, resulting in a reduced industrial footprint as both science and economics permit. It would not require a leap of imagination to consider the shifting away from rural agriculture, to an indoor process, under perfect conditions. The reason for not doing that now is that ‘solar power’ makes using fields for crop production far cheaper. But a more abundant form of power would render such forms of production obsolete and inefficient. Of course, organic food faddists would baulk at the idea of lentils grown indoors. But such a step would create the possibility of safer, healthier, more plentiful food, protected from pests and other natural problems, and, of course, would be environmentally non-destructive. This would be a ‘green revolution’ second to none, as agricultural land would be freed up for other uses, including, if we so wished, nature conservation. What environmentalists should be calling for is a world-wide push for new ways of producing more and more energy, and more wealth, not arguing that it should be rationed and limited. Rationing is a guaranteed way to cause environmental problems. That they don’t reinforces the idea that Environmentalism is less about saving the planet per se and more to do with a discomfort with human aspirations.

Access to substance and its existence in sufficient quantities are only part of what constitutes a resource. The remainder is intellectual. Lucas herself must recognise this to some extent, because, as she knows only too well, methods such as domestic solar panels are not currently economically viable alternatives to centralised, fossil-fuel power generation. She argues that huge investments and massive infrastructural changes are needed to develop technology, and for the economics to be adjusted to make alternatives viable. So in this respect, solar energy and other renewables are not yet the ‘resources’ that she hopes them to become. So Lucas’s argument for renewable resources to be exploited in place of fossil fuels is predicated on a transformed relationship with a substance, and the development of the technology to make that exploitation possible. She cannot deny, then, that politics – as much as physics – are what determines which substances are resources.

Back to Lucas’s blind faith in the laws of physics… 500 years ago, oil was not a resource. Neither was uranium. People around at the time didn’t know how to use them. Things that weren’t resources became resources. Our ability to use new resources made old resources obsolete. Now, no home in the UK needs to burn wood for heat, for example. Or, as Bjørn Lomborg has put it, the Stone Age didn’t come to an end because we ran out of stones. What Malthusians forget is that development begats development. After all, you don’t make a jump from rubbing twigs together to atomic energy. Critics of this perspective on this site suggest that this represents some form of contemporary Lysenkoism – that blind faith in science’s ability to rescue us from future resource depletion is a dangerous, politically-motivated folly. They argue that science will not be able to continually provide ‘techno-fixes’ to the problems which emerge from our ways of life. We must come up against some ceiling sooner or later, the logic goes.

But anxiety about ‘growing indefinitely on a finite planet’ forgets that our abilities to make use of the finite space and finite resources increases the effective space and amount of resources that are available. And there is a colossal amount of space, and an abundance of resources out there. For example, we hear a lot about the looming ‘water wars’ that are to be fought because of apparent shortages. A quick look at any map will reveal that the Earth isn’t running out of it any time soon. The problem is simply technological. Instead of concerning themselves with how to provide for a growing population by coming up with desalination, distribution and irrigation schemes, the environmental movement instead uses the prospect of conflict to arm its arguments in favour of restricting development and of rationing what water comes our way through natural processes. What better way could there be of guaranteeing a ‘natural’ disaster than limiting the supply of resources – super abundant resources, never mind oil – to human populations? Environmentalists simultaneously warn of shortages, yet stand in the way of developing any alternatives that might not last ‘indefinitely’. There is only one way out of the resource-depletion scenario that is presented, they say, reduce the number of people, and the amount of resources they are entitled to.

What environmentalists refuse to consider is what a resource- and energy-abundant society might be like. What if stuff in the world just got cheaper? What if access to water and energy wasn’t an issue for anyone in the world? Perhaps, just perhaps, it is this very democratisation of resource use that the environmental movement is a response to. The possibilities that are opened up by technological development for our way of life and our politics are the real locus of anxieties about the future.

Environmentalists demand an impossibly high standard. Nothing the human race has ever done to improve its conditions has been ‘sustainable’. As technologies have changed our lives, and created new problems, so too have new politics arisen out of these changing conditions. If this process had been stalled during any era on the basis that it was unsustainable, we would still be living in stone-age conditions, with stone-age politics – at least, that is, until we really did run out of stones.

Who'd've Discredited It?

‘Case against climate change discredited by study’ shrieked the Independent yesterday. That must be one hell of a study. Except that it isn’t:

A difference in the way British and American ships measured the temperature of the ocean during the 1940s may explain why the world appeared to undergo a period of sudden cooling immediately after the Second World War.

Scientists believe they can now explain an anomaly in the global temperature record for the twentieth century, which has been used by climate change sceptics to undermine the link between rising temperatures and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Not only does the study (published this week in Nature) not claim to discredit what the Independent‘s headline claims it discredits, but it doesn’t even discredit what the scientists behind the study claim it discredits. Moreover, what the scientists claim their work does discredit was, according to prominent Environmentalists, discredited years ago. And finally, what everybody seems to be trying to discredit isn’t even something that sceptics seem to be crediting in the first place.

Yes, sceptics are concerned about the post-war temperature slump, but not because of the sudden steep drop around 1945; it is the downward trend in temperatures between about 1945 and 1975 that they suggest needs explaining (which is actually longer than the upward trend between 1975 and 1998, just so you know), given that greenhouse gas emissions were rising throughout that period.

And as the graph used by the Independent to bolster its case (supplied by CRU, apparently) demonstrates, the Nature study does absolutely nothing to address that concern:

In fact, the most striking thing about the graph is that, once the sampling errors identified by the study have been taken into account, the period of warming in the latter half of the twentieth century was shorter than previously thought, and that the ’45-’75 temperature slump is more pronounced.

According to Phil Jones, a co-author of the paper, the study

lends support to the idea that a period of global cooling occurred later during the mid-twentieth century as a result of sulphate aerosols being released during the 1950s with the rise of industrial output. These sulphates tended to cut sunlight, counteracting global warming caused by rising carbon dioxide.

“This finding supports the sulphates argument, because it was bit hard to explain how they could cause the period of cooling from 1945, when industrial production was still relatively low,” Professor Jones said.

That might be so. But the aerosols issue is supposed to have been done and dusted long ago. One of the central criticisms aimed at the infamous Great Global Warming Swindle, for example, is precisely that it failed to entertain the idea that the post-1940 decline in global temperatures was the result of increases in sulphurous emissions that masked the forcing effect of rising atmospheric CO2. George Monbiot described the omission as ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty‘. After all, he said, that ‘temperatures declined after the Second World War as a result of sulphate pollution from heavy industry, causing global dimming…is well-known to all climate scientists.’ And as we have reported before, this was also one of the main points raised by the Royal Society’s Bob Ward and 36 scientific experts in their open letter to Swindle producer Martin Durkin.

And yet, as we’ve reported elsewhere, other experts in the field just don’t agree. UC San Diego atmospheric physicist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, for example, told us that the empirical evidence for the sulphate masking of warming is ‘pretty flimsy’. We do not doubt that the Nature study is an important contribution to the field. (Although it’s interesting that Steve McIntyre seems to have produced a similar analysis more than a year ago.) What we do doubt is that the headlines, soundbites, and wild interpretations from newspapers and scientists alike bear much relevance to what is a dry, technical, scientific study, which, while increasing our ability to understand and predict climate trends, says little in itself about the truth or otherwise of global warming.

That said, the BBC’s Richard Black has demonstrated uncharacteristic reserve in his coverage of the paper, which includes the following quote from CRU’s Mike Hulme:

Corrections for this measurement switch have not yet been applied to produce a new graph of 20th Century temperatures – that work is ongoing at the UK Met Office – but as the land temperature record shows a flattening of the upwards trend from the 1940s to the 1970s, clearly something did change around the 1940s to ameliorate the warming.

“It perhaps suggests that the role of sulphate aerosols, that cooling effect, was less powerful than we thought,” said Mike Hulme from the University of East Anglia (UEA), who was not involved in the study.

George Monbiot and the Royal Society are just plain wrong – the science is plainly not ‘settled’. And so is Steve Connor, the author of the Independent article. As he wrote last year in response to the Swindle:

The programme failed to point out that scientists had now explained the period of “global cooling” between 1940 and 1970. It was caused by industrial emissions of sulphate pollutants, which tend to reflect sunlight. Subsequent clean-air laws have cleared up some of this pollution, revealing the true scale of global warming – a point that the film failed to mention.

‘Scientists’ have ‘explained’ nothing of the sort. As this case shows, the science is not settled. Indeed science is never settled. It is constantly re-evaluating what it understands about absolutely everything. And that’s especially crucial to bear in mind when the science in question has been bestowed with the kind of political significance that climate science has. To claim otherwise is to do a disservice to both science and politics. It reduces science to a flimsy fig leaf used simply to hide the embarrassing inadequacies of the latest political fad; and it reduces politics to an aimless exercise in number-crunching.

Ethics? What Ethics?

Ben has a review of James Garvey’s The Ethics of Climate Change: right and wrong in a changing world over at Culture Wars:

Few arguments in favour of action to mitigate the effects of climate change begin without claiming that ‘the science is in’. James Garvey’s The Ethics of Climate Change is no exception. There begins an account of the ‘science’ which forms the basis of an unassailable consensus that the world faces a terrifying future. The account is a breathless list of tragedies that await us: sea-level rises, species-extinctions, glacial retreat, resource wars, and climate refugees, all of which will be worse for the poor, and most of which have been caused by the industrialised world. We face ‘planetary upheaval, the deaths of countless living things, human suffering on an enormous scale and all sorts of other horrors’, Garvey tells us. Be very afraid. 

This scientific account generates the imperatives that we, in this perilous world, are supposed to respond to – if we want to be ‘ethical’, that is. But, as Garvey goes on to point out, ‘scientific facts are a necessary part of reflection on climate change, but they are nothing near the whole of it’. The moral philosopher is on hand to help us navigate the awkward journey, beset by doom, catastrophe, and other unimaginable horrors, toward a future of mere survival…

Read the rest of Environmentalism’s Fig Leaf here.

'Science' – Environmentalism's Fig Leaf

On The Nation blog, David Roberts of Gristmill (another blog) writes:

Long-time greens are painfully aware that the arguments of global warming skeptics are like zombies in a ’70s B movie. They get shot, stabbed, and crushed, over and over again, but they just keep lurching to their feet and staggering forward. That’s because — news flash! — climate skepticism is an ideological, not a scientific, position, and as such it bears only a tenuous relationship to scientific rules of evidence and inference.

Let us put him straight. Climate scepticism (or skepticism) is not an ideological position. Climate scepticism is not an ideology. Climate scepticism does not offer a perspective on the world from which follow moral imperatives, and climate scepticism is not a doctrine, around which climate sceptics wish to organise society. There is no “world view” of climate scepticism.

Environmentalism,on the other hand, is an ideology. It does create moral imperatives. It does wish to organise society around its principles. It is a world view.

Of course, climate orthodoxy and environmentalism can be challenged from political or ideological perspectives. But there is no consistent “climate sceptic” position. There doesn’t need to be; It’s not an argument for a course of action, and its objections to environmentalism are varied. There have been criticisms of climate politics from the left, and from the centre (or center), and from the right. But these perspectives are not unique to climate scepticism.

To make his point, Roberts links back to a March ’07 post of his on Gristmill, where he makes the claim that,

The scientific contest — at least as it relates to the basic facts of global warming — is over.

If the science is settled, he reasons, then the idea that “The contest between climate advocates and their critics is primarily a scientific contest — a debate over who has the best science” is false. By elimination, the argument with no science must be political. Of course, both of Roberts’s premises are false. The scientific debate is not over – it’s never over, and can never be over. That is itself an unscientific statement.

Environmentalists hide their moral and political arguments behind science. If you challenge them, they will tell you that “the consensus” science is settled. There ensues a scientific debate about whether or not something “is happening”, not whether or not it follows from “something happening” that the appropriate course of action is the one which the environmentalist has proposed. But rarely is it the case that the political statement actually tallies with the science on the matter. What drives the political argument of environmentalists is catastrophism and images of polar bears clinging to ice floes. We have highlighted many times on this blog cases where the political language bears no resemblance to the scientific research on an issue. Our various posts looking at Caroline Lucas’s statements, for example, reveal that in most cases, she has simply made the science up. The “science is settled” argument is used as leverage in political arguments to diminish unqualified opinion, but even scientific authorities overstate the strength of research.

The claim that science has shown that “climate change is real and is happening” leads to an array of political arguments from environmentalists, as though all that need be shown to legitimise drastic action (the more drastic the better) is that mankind has influenced the climate. But ask any number of environmentalists what “climate change is real and is happening” actually means, and you will get as many different answers back. The “science” of the matter is portable, in that it is used to arm any number of arguments. But what is happening is not that the science of the argument is being used to illuminate the discussion. Instead the fact of the consensus is being used to avoid the argument being challenged. The moral and political argument is deferred to a “scientific fact”, which is neither. On Gristmill, Roberts continues:

Remember: the goal of political debate is not to establish scientific truth, or even to establish which side is closer to it, but to triumph in the realm of public opinion and public policy. No matter how much some people wish that having science on their side is an automatic trump card, it just isn’t. The relationship between accuracy and political advantage is tenuous at best.The most vociferous critics of global warming advocates — far-right conservatives — understand this viscerally, instinctively, if not consciously.

It is revealing that the issue on which Roberts choses to confront the “far right” is climate change. Environmentalism has thrived in an atmosphere of political exhaustion and cynicism. It therefore appeals to “science” to make it look like it isn’t political. It is. Nonetheless, Roberts is unable to challenge the “far right” – whoever he imagines them to be – on either any political basis, or any substantiated scientific basis. And in any case, it’s not as if there aren’t any far-right green perspectives. Environmentalism is not incompatible with some very nasty views about the human race.

Environmentalism has a lot to hide, and uses science as a fig leaf. Sceptics (and skeptics), in whatever political colours (or colors) they wear should not be afraid of bringing political perspectives to the discussion. It’s not about science.