Apr 252009

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.

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

Posted by admin on April 24, 2009
Apr 242009

>> 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]

Rewriting Slavery

Posted by admin on August 8, 2008
Aug 082008

In the August edition of History Today, Jean-Francois Mouhot argues that ‘reliance on fossil fuels has made slave owners of us all’.


Most of us approach slavery with the underlying assumption that our modern civilization is morally far superior to the barbaric slave-owning societies of the past. But are we really so different? If we compare our current attitude to fossil fuels and climate change with the behaviour of the slave owners, there are more similarities than one might immediately perceive.

Mouhot begins his article by drawing some links between the industrial revolution and the slave trade. Goods such as weapons, chains, and locks were made in Britain, to keep slaves in bondage, and their labour created the goods that flowed back; sugar, cotton, tobacco.

Slave traders therefore played a significant – if perhaps indirect – role in the establishment of the industrialist system at the core of our contemporary societies.

Industrial society, it seems, only owes itself indirectly to slavery. And he continues to say that there are also links between industrialisation and the end of slavery. There seems to be no coherent basis for Mouhot to continue, yet he carries on with this tired comparison, seemingly only on the basis that steam power was unable to make slavery redundant in the cotton-fields. Mouhot turns to human nature itself to explain why this might have been.

The comparison starts with a hypothesis that it is a feature of human nature that whenever humans have had the possibility to find someone or something else to work for them for free or for a small cost, they have almost always taken advantage of it, even if it came at a high moral cost.

This is a very cynical conception of human nature and a particularly flawed hypothesis. What is more, it is an ahistorical hypothesis. History shows that slavery was rejected to the point that it is now considered to be disgusting. The transformation to the contemporary view of slavery from its general acceptance centuries ago shows how our moral sense, and our conception of humanity has changed. The difference between getting ‘someone else’, and ‘something else’ to work for us for free is stark. It is only by assuming this ahistorical position, and in fact degrading that developed sense of humanity, that Mouhot can substantiate his argument for a moral equivalence between using labour-saving devices and being a slave-owner.

Mouhot shows that to maintain the same standard of living, without fossil fuels, we would need about a hundred people working for us, full time. (Surely this is a good thing? After all, given that he has argued that humans ‘will always take advantage of the possibility of cheaper ways of doing things’, then the alternative to using oil is that humans are put to work as slaves. There could not be a more compelling argument for the continued use of fossil fuel). In fact, Mouhot misses an even deeper historical lesson. Industrialisation created the conditions in which the poor of the world were able to challenge their conditions. As poor people were widely distributed, and lacked the means to organise themselves, and had nothing to bargain with, they had no political capital. When the industrial revolution concentrated labour in towns, and created the possibility of the exchange of labour for wages, it made labour a political force. Industrialisation and capitalism toppled feudalism. This process happened as progressive theories were developing about the way in which people related to one another, and how they ought to relate to one another. In 1762, Rousseau, whose thoughts have shaped today’s world, wondered, in The Social Contract:

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.

Of course, Rousseau was speaking generally about slavery. But then, Mouhot himself uses the term very loosely in order to make his point. Mouhot is simply wrong to imagine that ‘high moral cost’ was a consideration in the exploitation of slave labour. It happened in a different age, where different ideas about what constitutes a human influenced the way people related to each other. We haven’t merely developed industrially, our morals, ethics and values have been transformed by the political ideas and struggles that have taken place over the last few centuries. In that time, the prevailing view has changed from one in which people were the property of Kings by Divine Right, to today, where people are (or ought to be) entitled to inalienable human rights. Nonetheless, Mouhot’s poor reasoning and ahistorical thinking continues:

Second, slavery caused harm to human beings, as does our current large-scale burning of fossil fuel. Some might argue that it is not possible to compare pain triggered by the use of slaves and pain caused by the use of oil, gas or coal, as in the latter case we are dealing with inanimate objects. However, when we burn oil or gas above what the eco-system can absorb, we are causing pain and suffering to other human beings. The release of carbon dioxide is already causing harm and human suffering and is forecast to produce much more, by increasing droughts and flooding, threatening crop yields and displacing large numbers of people.

Mouhot is simply wrong to claim that CO2 is ‘already causing harm and human suffering’. It cannot be shown, and it has not been shown by any sound method. He certainly hasn’t subjected the claim to any scrutiny. What is clear, and what we have pointed out on many occasions, is that the victims this kind of argument exploits for moral capital – the poor – would not be vulnerable to climate were they as wealthy as we are. The ethical case for equality is distorted by arguments such as Mouhot’s, which replace it with an ethic to stabilise the weather. What is missing from this process is the voices of the people on whose behalf Mouhot seems to be speaking. Let us imagine they have been asked, ‘what would you prefer, a stable climate, or Western levels of wealth?’ What do we think their reply would be? Of course, this would liberate Mouhot’s eco-slaves, and turn them into the climate criminals that he compares to slave owners. In other words, liberating the world’s poor who are vulnerable to climate by making them voices, rather than victims means that he can no longer turn to them for moral capital. So who is the slave owner? Mouhot has an answer to these points…

It is argued that there are some long-term benefits from the carbon economy: the hospitals, schools and roads we build today through the use of fossil fuels will benefit future generations. What is more, not all of the consequences of climate change are negative: a rise in temperature by a few degrees will have some beneficial aspects. However, these arguments are erroneous as the predicted overall damage, according to the IPCC, far outweighs any positive impacts climate change may have.

What predictions? The IPCC does not make any predictions. What Mouhot believes are ‘predictions’, are in fact ‘projections’, which consider what might happen under a range of possible scenarios, as assumptions. For example, The Technical Summary of IPCC AR4 Impacts and Vulnerability Group states:

Future vulnerability depends not only on climate change but also on development pathway.
An important advance since the Third Assessment has been the completion of impacts studies for a range of different development pathways, taking into account not only projected climate change but also projected social and economic changes. Most have been based on characterisations of population and income levels drawn from the SRES scenarios [2.4]. These studies show that the projected impacts of climate change can vary greatly due to the development pathway assumed. For example, there may be large differences in regional population, income and technological development under alternative scenarios, which are often a strong determinant of the level of vulnerability to climate change [2.4]. [OUR EMPHASIS]

The report also pointed out that more research was needed:

[TS 6.2] there has been little advance on:

• impacts under different assumptions about how the world will evolve in future – societies, governance, technology and economic development;

• the costs of climate change, both of the impacts and of response (adaptation and mitigation)

If that is not sufficient to convince anyone that development is a key determinant of vulnerability to climate, then there is plenty more. For example:

Vulnerability to climate change can be exacerbated by the presence of other stresses.

…Vulnerable regions face multiple stresses that affect their exposure and sensitivity as well as their capacity to adapt. These stresses arise from, for example, current climate hazards, poverty and unequal access to resources, food insecurity, trends in economic globalisation, conflict, and incidence of disease such as HIV/AIDS [7.4, 8.3, 17.3, 20.3].

Finally, what the IPCC do here is barely science at all, but the construction of stories by social scientists and economists, based on scientific projections given by climate scientists. And it is far from unchallengable. Nevertheless, it is clear that the claim Mouhot makes is not substantiated by the IPCC. It depends on a very subjective interpretation of its work, which combines a huge number of highly significant assumptions, complete with caveats – all of which are ignored. The IPCC is cited by Mouhot, not in order to point readers towards supporting information… it doesn’t exist. The purpose is to invoke scientific authority to support his specious moral reasoning. All Mouhot has done is to make something up, and attribute it to the IPCC. And anyway, anyone who disagrees is a ‘denier’.

But let’s not single Mouhot out. This is the standard to which even academics writing about climate change aspire. This is not an unusual case.

The claims made by Mouhot, that ‘predictions’ show that negative impacts will outweigh the positives, are not science. They are not made by scientists, and they fail to take into account what is possible through increased wealth. Indeed, the IPCC is wedded to the anti-wealth, sustainability agenda, which takes the view that wealth itself is environmentally destructive. In other words, the IPCC, through the sustainability agenda, is attached to a particular political idea that will influence the direction of development throughout the world over the coming decades. This is the counterpart political orthodoxy to the ‘scientific consensus’. And it is this political idea which is reflected as Mouhot considers a challenge to his argument, on the basis that slavery implies a relationship between slave and master, which does not exist in our reliance on fossil fuels.

…comparatively cheap energy is a required condition for the transport of foreign goods on a massive scale and over large distances. As it is inexpensive to transport those goods from the Far East to Europe or America, it is possible to import products often made in slave-like conditions for a fraction of the cost of producing them in our countries. We have delocalized slavery and put it far from view, but it still exists and we benefit from it. Secondly, the harm caused by climate change often amounts to violence or force against a large number of people. Global warming, like slavery, is already limiting the possibilities they have for living a good life. Floods, droughts and rising sea levels will force millions of people to become refugees; their land will be taken away from them and they may have to work in slave-like conditions instead of growing their own crops. Even if they do not become refugees, in the ‘developing world’ many poor peasants have to contract debts to survive. Any crop failure, which can be caused or worsened by climate change, put these peasants at the mercy of debt bondage. It is even possible that the consequences of climate change will be far worse and longer lasting, and affect a much larger number of people, than slavery ever did.

First, Mouhot’s imaginations are predicated on the principle of zero economic, political and social development in the developing world. Not only is this ahistorical, again, it is also counter-factual. Of course, working life in the developing world is not something that we would tolerate in the West, but it is still an improvement upon the conditions endured by people living in subsistence economies. That is why we see mass migration towards cities throughout the world, and in particular why people in China have abandoned rural lifestyles to work in factories in cities. And that is why we see development in China on an unprecedented scale. And of course we benefit from cheaper labour and production, and there is an element of ‘unfairness’ to this relationship. But this relationship is a transformation from no relationship. Equality cannot be achieved where there is no relationship.

Second, the claim that global warming is ‘already’ causing pain and suffering to the poor, or will in the future, also imagines that development does not offer protection against the elements. But why does Mouhot not imagine that governments in the developing world invest in infrastructure that will protect it from the climate, changing or not? After all, at the very least, even if the plight of humans isn’t worth a stuff, factories and other installations are worth protecting. Whereas, self-evidently, subsistence economies cannot afford to build protection for themselves against the elements.

Third, the lifestyle that Mouhot seems to want people in the developing world to continue living precludes the possibility of industrial development and economic growth. That in turn precludes the possibility of political transformation of the unequal relationships they are on the bad end of. In other words, Mouhot argues for the slave-master relationship to be sustained, lest it ‘damages the environment’. Mouhot cares not a hoot for these ‘slaves’.

What Mouhot writes is unmitigated nonsense. It is ahistorical, it is counter-factual, and it is ultimately an argument which can be used to sustain the conditions which are endured by the very people he claims to wish to save.

That ought to be the end of this already long post. But there is more to this story. At the bottom of the article is a very revealing profile of Mouhot.

* Jean-François Mouhot is project research officer at the University of Birmingham. He worked until recently for an environmental NGO campaigning against climate change. He is a member of the Rescue!History network: www.rescue-history.org.uk

The environmental movement makes a lot of noise about the interference of political interests in the public presentation of issues relating to climate change. It is constantly surprising to see that you can be an ecological activist without having your integrity challenged. But the slightest whiff of a connection to the oil industry is enough to ignite furious letters to the censor. So let’s allow Mouhot his biased influence on research which continues to sustain inequality in the world.

Rescue! History is an organisation that intends to connect the issue of climate change with the social sciences and humanities.

We therefore propose that as teachers, researchers and students of complex human societies of the past and present, whether as historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, human geographers, demographers, philosophers, writers, students of politics, economics, international relations, religion, literature and culture, or of other related fields, that our role and responsibility must be directed increasingly towards an understanding of how we arrived at this point of crisis. By the same token, we must seek to understand not only how societies, polities and cultures have previously, or currently, sustained themselves in conditions of scarcity and adversity but through our own actions also take some personal responsibility by reducing our carbon footprints if not to remedy then at least to help mitigate the consequences of climate change.

There are three things to consider here.

The first is that academics from these disciplines are being asked to take at face value ‘what science says’, rather than, as has been the case since positivism, for social scientists to challenge scientism – the idea that society can be understood and controlled in strict, scientific terms.

The second is that this statement of intent seems to use urgency to arm political, environmental orthodoxy with moral purpose, and to exclude dissent from academia.

Third, we ought to ask what it is that Rescue! History really aims to rescue. Is it humanity, or is it the humanities? Just as fears about climate change have armed flailing political parties with new purpose, as we have observed, it has breathed new life into academia; it has brought to the fore dusty old geography departments, and made them highly relevant to today’s world, and has reconnected moral philosophy to matters of the survival of the human race through ‘the ethics of climate change’. This is about more than simply capturing research budgets by making History relevant to climate change. This is about redefining History as a discipline, when, perhaps, it is a bit unsure of itself, in much the same way that directionless politicians from the old left and right alike are redefining their core values in environmental terms.

The consequence of all this is that slavery also gets re-written, backwards. If Mouhot’s argument actually emerged from a careful study of history, that would be one thing. But instead, he looks to History for ways of making moral arguments in the present, in favour of Environmentalism. He wants to use History to show that we’re the moral equivalent of 18th Century slave owners, not to advance our understanding of humanity’s transformation through time. In the process, he ignores our political, social, and cultural development, which must be against the very principles of History. These are the things that Environmentalism wants us to discard. Environmentalism’s political objectives, given legitimacy by a re-writing of history makes us all either victims or culprits, are achieved not through broadening and deepening our understanding of history, culture, and society, but by narrowing it in order to make crass, obscene, and bogus moral calculations.

Smoking Out Unreasonable Certainty

Posted by admin on August 1, 2008
Aug 012008

In conversations with our exasperated green friends, we are often asked what we would accept as ‘proof’ that global warming ‘is real, and is happening’. This is a fairly typical misunderstanding of the sceptical position. Well, ours anyway. We do not argue that humans have not caused global warming. Our position is that even scientific proof of mankind’s influence on the climate is not sufficient to legitimise Environmentalism, or the environmental policies being created by governments in response to pressure from Environmentalists. It is possible to decide that even 10 metres of sea level rise is a price worth paying for constantly increasing living standards; the problem would be in extending the benefits of that increase to those who, in the short term, might lose out. But too often, environmental policies and rhetoric bear no relation to science whatsoever, let alone ‘proof’.

What we believe is happening when people mistake political arguments for scientific ones is that people have lost confidence in making calculations about human values, and so turn to ‘science’ to provide them. Thus we see a mad rush to derive ‘ethics’ from the issue of climate change. It is much easier to create a direction for your otherwise defunct moral compass with a crisis on the horizon. It gives purpose to otherwise purposeless politics. That huge looming catastrophe overwhelms any other considerations that might get in the way. Environmentalism epitomises the widespread loss of moral reasoning. Its desire to possess an unchallengeable moral imperative – as though it were the unmitigated word of God – doesn’t reflect its actually possessing it, but the disorientation of its constituency. When you are lost, you do not look for detail, you look for the biggest thing to orientate you. So it is for Environmentalism. And what could be bigger than the end of the world?

Accordingly, Environmentalists have had to defend the idea that catastrophe is just around the corner. It is where their entire political capital is invested. Without it, they are disoriented; disaster avoidance is a poor substitute for goal-seeking. In lieu of a definitive scientific proposition linking anthropogenic CO2 to the imminent end of the world, the idea of a ‘consensus’ was forged out of necessity (not through scientific discovery), allegedly consisting of ‘the vast majority of the world’s top climate scientists’. These scientists agree, we are told, that ‘something must be done’, even if they don’t agree about why, or how they know. It turns out, in fact, that ‘certainty’ relates not to the scientific understanding of the influence of CO2 on natural processes, but the application of the precautionary principle.

This fragile and nebulous consensus is protected by a variety of myths about anybody who wishes and dares to challenge it: they have vested interests; they have prostituted themselves; they belong to an organised conspiracy; they stand lonely against a vast and entirely unanimous scientific body. One of the most prominent myths is that sceptics employ a ‘tactic’ to subvert the public’s trust in the consensus by challenging the integrity of the scientific theories it is assumed to consist of (even though these theories have not been identified, let alone confidence in them measured). Along these lines, Naomi Oreskes’ thesis gives it the title ‘the tobacco strategy’, which itself owes much to George Monbiot’s book, Heat, which in turn draws on the Exxonsecrets.org website run by Greenpeace. We have written about the ‘tobacco strategy‘ and its variants before. But it hasn’t gone away, and so, reading an article by custard-pie-thrower-turned-respectable-‘science’-writer, and shrill Gaia-botherer, Mark Lynas, we thought it deserved some further attention.

Like the tobacco lobbyists who spent years denying the links between smoking and cancer, global warming denialists don’t have to win the debate – they simply have to confuse the public indefinitely to successfully undermine any political action which might hit the interests of their backers in the fossil fuel industries

The tactic is, according to Lynas, Oreskes, and Monbiot, to generate doubt about the certainty of the science being presented by climate activists, in order to win public opinion.

It is interesting that all Lynas believes he has to win the debate is to claim that the sceptics don’t have to win the debate, and to somehow link ‘denial’ of one form to another, rather than actually have it. He excuses himself from the debate by saying that all that his would-be counterparts would have to do to win it would be to show that doubt exists. Environmentalists generally, and Lynas particularly, don’t like debate, and avoid it. He doesn’t think he needs to have one; ‘the science’ is settled. And from ‘the science’ flow all of the imperatives and moral absolutes, as if from the mouth of God. Instead of making the case, he insists that it is made. Done. Finished. Over. Settled. ‘In’. Won.

So, what of the link between the denial of the link between cancer and smoking on the one hand, and the denial of the end of the world on the other? What function is it serving, other than to divert attention from the substance of the case for mitigation, which has not in fact been made?

In the case of smoking, ‘denial’ had very little to do with convincing the public that it was safe. Instead, tobacco companies were forced to establish doubt about the link between smoking and cancer because they faced litigation. Whatever the wrongs of ‘denying’ the scientific evidence generally, in the face of litigation it is entirely reasonable to cast doubt on whatever case is being bought against you. That’s the whole point of the legal process; no matter how grievous the crime you are accused of is, and no matter what the strength of the moral case for damages is, you are entitled to a defence. No matter how culpable you are in actual fact, you are entitled to have your defence heard. Courts of law are established on this principle.

In the simple black and white moral universe, anti smoking activists and lawyers set to make many millions of dollars are the goodies, and those profiting from the sale of cancer-causing cigarettes are the baddies. But in the real world, things aren’t like that. Yes, smoking is ‘bad’, and the world would possibly be a better place if no one damaged themselves by smoking. But the anti-smokers ought to have considered the consequences of challenging the tobacco industry in the courts. Would it ever make the world a better place? How would it be effective? In the end, it opened the door to lawyers in search of a huge payoff. That is why and how the ‘denial’ industry – if it exists – began. If this ‘denial machine’ is a monster, the part of Frankenstein is played by those who sought to close down the tobacco industry – and free all those slaves to tobacco – in the courts.

Nonetheless, prominent environmental activists like Monbiot and Oreskes – who, given their academic positions, ought to know better – maintain the image of the evil tobacco lobby in order to ‘link’ its modus operandi to climate sceptics. It’s a cheap shot. And it makes very little sense, not least because, as has been discussed, such ‘denial’ constitutes a legitimate legal defence in the face of litigation bought about by the ‘goodies’, but also because there is no real substance between the two strategies that we wouldn’t find between any form of positive claim about the material universe, and any scepticism of that claim. That is to say that anyone challenging any form of assertion can only go about challenging that claim by casting doubt over it. Monbiot, according to his own website, held a position (fellow, or professorship) in the philosophy department at Bristol University. The mind boggles. Let’s hope that it was not logic which Mobiot ‘taught’. Lynas – not an academic – also objects to challenges to ‘consensus’ science from sceptics.

The arguments change all the time: this year it is “global warming has stopped”, while last year it was “hurricanes aren’t linked with warming”, and the year before “satellites don’t show any warming of the atmosphere”. As each argument is laboriously refuted by scientists, the deniers simply drop it and skip onto the next one.

In fact, there is some fairly compelling evidence that global warming has stopped since 1998, such as it has not actually got any warmer over the last decade. That’s not to say that anthropogenic global warming has ‘gone away’, of course. And there is some even more compelling evidence that neither hurricane frequency nor intensity have increased with global warming. While IPCC AR4 WGI states that there is a ‘slight’ increase in activity and intensity, they also admit that there is a great deal of ‘natural variability’ masking it. It is, of course, always ‘natural variability’ which is used to wave away evidence that is not consistent with the theory. Never mind that ‘natural variability’ indicates a substantial unknown which needs to be isolated before any guilt can be attributed to humans for changing the atmosphere. And never mind that, as Roger Pielke Jr has shown, normalising storm damage against inflation, population, and wealth yields no signal which would excite warmers. Regardless of whether or not hurricane frequency and intensity have increased, the effect of that increase has been more than mediated by our increasing wealth and population. But that doesn’t stop Lynas using the ‘fact’ (it may well not be one) of increasing intensity and frequency to argue in favour of reducing the very wealth that buffers us against environmental problems! Shooting himself in the foot to mediate the effects of shooting himself in the foot would be less stupid. At least that way, he might still have a leg to stand on.

No surprise, then, that Lynas – clearly no friend of logic – refuses to recognise the legitimacy of debate and challenges to the orthodoxy on which his argument is constructed. No prizes for guessing what he fears debate might reveal. Yet sceptics have helped the scientific process produce some notable shifts in the argument coming from the side Lynas believes to be beyond reproach. For example, Steve McIntyre’s continuing work looking at the way global temperatures are derived from proxies has prompted NASA GISS to adjust their methodology, and the temperature record was adjusted as a consequence. Also thanks to McIntyre, the IPCC no longer uses Mann’s famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph which was the source of so much panic in 2001, when it appeared as a key graphic. This case should tell us about the value of scepticism to the scientific process. Of course, NASA GISS, like many others, constantly appraise their own work. But this process should be open and transparent, particularly as the research is used to inform policy-making decisions throughout the world, affecting the lives – and possibly even the deaths – of billions of people.

As it happens, it is very difficult for sceptics to challenge climate science, because those engaged in creating models of past and future climate do not cooperate with challenges to their methodology, and refuse to release their working. Like Lynas, they too seem to feel that the moral high-ground belongs to them. Climatologist and Professor at the UK’s UEA, Phil Jones – who worked with Mann on the infamous ‘hockey stick’ – for example, told climate-realist, Warwick Hughes, who had asked for details about his methodology,

We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.

Why indeed? So much for ‘the science’ then. The ‘settled science’. The science which is ‘in’. The science which ‘won’ the ‘debate’. The science to which the ‘vast majority’ of ‘the world’s top scientists’ all subscribe, yet which they have not seen, they cannot see, and can only have access to if they will not subject it to scrutiny.

And there’s the rub. Oreskes, Monbiot, and Lynas – none of them climate scientists, incidentally – make shrill noises about ‘manufacturing doubt’. But in maintaining that the ‘tobacco strategy’ acts against the public interest, they must reject the idea that debate is in keeping with the spirit of the scientific method. Ditto, debate – the fundamental essence of democracy – must also be against the public interest. Who’d have thought that transparent scientific processes and debate are against the public interest? So much for the Enlightenment, too; the age of reason must be over. We must take it on faith that Lynas, Monbiot, Oreskes, and Jones are acting not their own interests but in ours. We have no way of testing that. And they have no way of proving it. We cannot engage in the discussion, we must just accept it. Yet they want the entire world to reorganise its political, social, and economic structures; for the entire world to live different lifestyles; and for our ambitions to be diminished, lest they cause us to behave ‘unsustainably’. That’s easy for them to say. No wonder that all this stuff about doubt and uncertainty becomes so important. Smoke and mirrors.

As we have said, the ‘manufacture of doubt’, or ‘the tobacco strategy’ has been presented by various environmental activists as the work of nefarious conspiracy. The story tells that interests within the oil industry have simply re-run the same script to achieve the same effect on public opinion, for the same ends: continued profit. The oil companies, the tobacco companies, and the hired scientific opinion are the ‘baddies’, and the climate change activists, IPCC scientists, and the class-action lawyers are the good guys. That’s all you need to know.

But think a little deeper, and a different picture emerges. If the tobacco strategy has its roots in a defence against litigation, it follows that the ‘standard of proof’ set by Oreskes, Lynas and Monbiot to legitimise political action to mitigate climate change is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Our exasperated Environmentalist friends, who asked us what ‘proof’ would change our mind, set the bar (pardon the pun) and invite the legal defence. All that needs to be provided to challenge unreasonable certainty is reasonable doubt. It is entirely legitimate, therefore, for sceptics to cast doubt over the scientific case, because the narrative with which Lynas, Oreskes, and Monbiot chose to advance their cause is a courtroom drama. But not only did they invite the legal defence, they also honed the tactics that are now being turned against them by the opposition – they are now on the receiving end of the very precautionary principle that has served them so well for so long.

However, what is being sought by this court is not ‘truth’, but guilt. In spite of green claims to possess scientific truth, the emphasis of this process is not establishing material fact, but the elevation of Environmentalism by diminishing the moral character of its detractors. Environmentalists have failed to make the political argument for Environmentalism using science. Instead of achieving momentum for their political ambitions through mass politics (ie, winning the debate, and getting people to join up), the rhetoric instead takes the form of a kangaroo courtroom drama. The guilt is already established: we, the audience, have already seen the ‘crime’: the ‘denial’ of the link between smoking and cancer. Now, we watch the morality play unfold, just as it did during the tobacco wars.

If a parallel is to be drawn between then and now, it’s that in both cases the ‘denialists’ were created by the ‘good guys’. Neither the case against smoking nor the case for immediate mitigative action on climate change is justified by the science alone. There are the pesky matters of personal sovereignty and responsibility, political legitimacy, democratic process, and other costs/benefits to consider. Being right and being righteous are different things. Which is why Environmentalists have had to resort to consensuses, to legal action, to judgements by unelected bodies, and to denying the very legitimacy of opposition, in order to advance its arguments.

Save Any Planet

Posted by admin on May 6, 2008
May 062008

For Green buffoonery in all its ghastly, opportunistic, incompetent, self-righteous glory, there is the latest episode of the BBC’s The Apprentice. That’s the series where someone incredibly rich and successful like Donald Trump conducts a “job interview from hell” in which ambitious young things compete for employment at Trump Central. In the BBC version, silly posh people and salt-of-the-earth working class types battle it out for a job with Cockney barrow boy Sir Alan Sugar, whose businesses are worth, we are told, 800 million pounds.

British readers with an hour to kill within the next four days can watch the show here. For everyone else, it goes something like this…

The candidates must come up with a brand new occasion for a range of greetings cards. Will they find a gap in this saturated market? And will their ideas be commercial? 

What the two teams come up with is Happy Singles’ Day and, yes, Save Planet Earth Day. As bad as Happy Singles’ Day may be, a packaged greetings card celebrating the use of fewer resources is, as Sir Alan points out, a complete non-starter. But that alone does not explain the excruciating hilarity of the team’s attempts to sell them to retailers. What makes the pitches for Save Planet Earth Day such exquisitely uncomfortable viewing is the religious zeal with which they fight the cause. These guys think they ought to believe what they are saying. The problem is that they don’t believe it. Which makes it tricky to convince others. But as any environmentalist worth their salt knows, when people don’t believe you, you emotionally blackmail them or appeal to their sense of self-loathing. Team leader Kevin does both. In his pitch to market leader Clinton Cards, he resorts to:

If you don’t put your weight behind it, then it’s just the same as the US saying “we don’t care about pollution” 

Kevin missed a trick there. Why stop at the US? Surely, anyone who begs to differ with environmental orthodoxy is worse even than that – they’re more like rats, slave traders, or Holocaust deniers.

Greens would interpret Kevin’s embarrassing Green epiphany rather differently. They would write it off as mere Greenwash, just another cynical attempt by business to tap into the grassroots popularity of the Environmental movement. The problem for that theory is that the Environmental movement is not popular. No sooner had we mentioned last week the ABC News poll where global warming didn’t figure at all in the US public’s list of priorities, and last year’s Ipsos Mori poll that showed that the great British public aren’t quite so Green as Britain’s Great and Good like to think we should be, than there was another poll, which found that 70% of us would not approve of tax hikes in the name of tackling climate change. The trouble is not that Kevin et al are cynically trying to exploit a market; it’s that they’re trying to sell a product that is wrapped up with a cynical ideology, and for which there is no market.

That the public are not as gullible as the Kevins of this world would have it does not bode well for green initiatives that rely on consumer power. Fairtrade, for example – still far from a market leader – won’t stand a chance once we realise that it’s not actually particularly ethical to give people a friendly pat on the head and toss them some loose change to make sure they carry on doing all those jobs that we wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

The beauty of it all for self-righteous greens, however, is that you don’t actually have to take any responsibility when you fail – you just blame the consumers. Just as Kevin does when reflecting on what went wrong with his pitch:

If that’s the attitude everyone takes, then we’re not going to be able to save any planet 

Sir Alan didn’t get where he is today by not cynically exploiting markets. Nor by cynically exploiting non-markets. Nor by cynically blaming people who refused to buy his wares. Kevin gets fired.

Slaves to Bad Analogies

Posted by admin on April 25, 2008
Apr 252008

Given the occasional inability of environmentalists to resist the temptation of equating those who challenge the political orthodoxy on climate change with those who opposed the end of slavery, it was only a matter of time before someone would liken the reduction of carbon emissions to the Abolition. That Someone, it turns out, is Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who wants to de-carbonise the world entirely. Weeeeeeeell, it can’t do any harm can it? But more than that, it would be a positive kick up the arse for the economy, apparently. After all, says RFK, the industrial revolution, and all the benefits that brought for humankind, was only possible because of the Abolition. The Business and Media Institute reports:

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wants to ‘abolish’ carbon usage and sees a direct comparison to the end of slavery … According to Kennedy, “industry and government warnings” about avoiding “economic ruin” should not be heeded because abolishing slavery did not cripple the British economy as was predicted “Instead of collapsing, as slavery’s proponents had predicted, Britain’s economy accelerated,” he argued.

OK, so the Business and Media Institute is hardly likely to be a bastion of objective, detached journalism, and you are welcome to make your own minds about how low Kennedy was actually stooping with his analogy, by reading his piece for Vanity Fair on which the above report reports.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a crap analogy. Slavery, carbon. Carbon, slavery. If carbon reduction were expected to damage the economy, would it be not worth saving the planet after all? Should we regret ending slavery had the Abolition led to economic problems? Are those who merely want to reduce CO2 emissions – James Hansen, say – akin to those who argued for having fewer slaves?

And even if you give Kennedy the benefit of the doubt on his intentions, his wider argument is preposterous. He might as well be advocating that we go around throwing bricks through windows on the basis that the economy would be stimulated by all the extra work it created for glaziers. Sorry Mr Kennedy, but the Abolition was the right thing to do purely and solely because slavery is immoral. And anyway, wasn’t the industrial revolution well under way before slavery was prohibited?

History, eh?

It’s funny how this whole climate change debate thing seems so contemporary. And yet denialism, scepticism, certainty, doubt and liberty, and the tensions between them, were hot topics well over a century ago, as the following passage from Mill’s essay On Liberty shows. Of course, warmers might argue that the urgency demanded by the danger posed by climate change means that we need to revise our understanding of liberty. But weren’t opponents of Mill also arguing the case for a less liberal sort of liberty? Warmers who read this blog might also observe the short shrift we’ve given to casual claims of geometrical congruence between immoral arguments of the past and climate change scepticism, and decide that we are hypocrites. But our point is simply that debates of the past really can inform contemporary ones. And not in a “you disagree with how we want to change things, just like those horrible slave-traders disagreed with how the Abolitionists wanted to change things, therefore you’re as bad as they were” sort of way.

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme;” not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.

In the present age — which has been described as “destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism,” — in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them — the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments, to act on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions. But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself. There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful: and can you prevent such men from urging that plea, when they are charged with culpability for denying some doctrine which they are told is useful, but which they believe to be false? Those who are on the side of received opinions, never fail to take all possible advantage of this plea; you do not find them handling the question of utility as if it could be completely abstracted from that of truth: on the contrary, it is, above all, because their doctrine is “the truth,” that the knowledge or the belief of it is held to be so indispensable. There can be no fair discussion of the question of usefulness, when an argument so vital may be employed on one side, but not on the other. And in point of fact, when law or public feeling do not permit the truth of an opinion to be disputed, they are just as little tolerant of a denial of its usefulness. The utmost they allow is an extenuation of its absolute necessity, or of the positi

guilt of rejecting it.

In order more fully to illustrate the mischief of denying a hearing to opinions because we, in our own judgment, have condemned them, it will be desirable to fix down the discussion to a concrete case; and I choose, by preference, the cases which are least favorable to me — in which the argument against freedom of opinion, both on the score of truth and on that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief in a God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality. To fight the battle on such ground, gives a great advantage to an unfair antagonist; since he will be sure to say (and many who have no desire to be unfair will say it internally), Are these the doctrines which you do not deem sufficiently certain to be taken under the protection of law? Is the belief in a God one of the opinions, to feel sure of which, you hold to be assuming infallibility? But I must be permitted to observe, that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an as sumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less, if put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. How ever positive any one’s persuasion may be, not only of the falsity, but of the pernicious consequences — not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of that private judgment, though backed by the public judgment of his country or his cotemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal. These are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes, which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity. It is among such that we find the instances memorable in history, when the arm of the law has been employed to root out the best men and the noblest doctrines; with deplorable success as to the men, though some of the doctrines have survived to be (as if in mockery) invoked, in defence of similar conduct towards those who dissent from them, or from their received interpretation.

Now we come to think of it, this post could have been addressed to Paul LaClair. Because Matthew needs to be able to recognise a good argument when he sees one; not to pick factual holes in arguments he already disagrees with because his parents do.

Mar 312008

We have reported before how climate alarmists seek to draw parallels between the shape of arguments made by the morally reprehensible, and climate change “denialists“. At the same time, some like to make analogies of climate scientists and physicians. Andrew Dessler, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, former scientific advisor to the Clinton Whitehouse, and climate change activist blogger at Gristmill does both.

After spotting an advert [PDF] in the New York Times for the Indoor Tanning Association’s campaign website, sunlightscam.com, Dessler compares the strategies employed by the Indoor Tanning Association, and the deniers:

The association between sun exposure and skin cancer is every bit as robust as the association between greenhouse gases and climate change. And that means it’s pretty damn robust. What’s interesting is that the Indoor Tanning Association seems to have virtually plagiarized the strategy incorporated by tobacco companies and global-warming denialists. The phrases “hypothetical risks” and “no compelling scientific evidence,” along with efforts to smear the mainstream scientific community with accusations of corruption, are right out of the global-warming denialists‘ handbook. 

This really underscores the effectiveness of the strategy. Regardless of how strong the evidence is — whether it’s the connection between smoking and lung cancer, exposure to sunlight and skin cancer, or greenhouse gases and climate change — it seems possible to create doubt in the general public’s mind with a concerted PR campaign.

What is interesting about Dessler’s inability to discuss global warming without recourse to crude analogy is that it reveals a strategy of his own, and the poverty of climate change “ethics”. Climate alarmists find it so difficult to connect their arguments to people that they need to seek abstract parallels in the structure of dubious arguments, and those of their opponents, despite their being totally unrelated. Thus we see Naomi Oreskes struggling to identify continuity between the legal defence offered by tobacco companies and the inertia of the environmental movement in the USA. And we see Marc D. Davidson attempting to diminish the moral character of climate change “deniers” by comparing their arguments to the arguments in favour of the continuation of slavery made nearly 200 years ago.

These are sure signs of the exhaustion of the climate change argument. It borrows the moral high-ground from history, but struggles to make the moral case for ‘action’ on its own terms; climate change denial is the equivalent of being in favour of the slave trade. The climate change argument borrows scientific credibility from medicine; climate change is like cancer, and climate scientists are like doctors. This unsophisticated reasoning isn’t designed to shed any light on the matters at hand. It merely uses this borrowed moral and scientific certainty to position climate alarmists on the “good” side.

Pesky Oreskes

Posted by admin on March 3, 2008
Mar 032008

And so to the 2nd (and quite possibly the final) part in our mini-series of posts about videos that really annoy us: “The American Denial of Global Warming

We find ourselves somewhat obsessed with this one. It’s a lecture by Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at the University of California, San Diego, that’s been doing the rounds for a while. It’s a polemic against US climate sceptics, who Oreskes believes are ideologically and financially motivated individuals, who have successfully impeded the dissemination of the “scientific message” about global warming.

Oreskes kicks off with statistics from a recent poll which suggest that “72% of Americans [are] completely or mostly convinced that global warming is happening” and that “sixty-two percent… believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. This shows, says Oreskes, that “the scientific message is getting through to the American people.” Except that it doesn’t. Because the message that “life on Earth” hangs in the balance, such that it faces “major disruptions” unless we take “immediate and drastic action” is not a scientific one. You certainly won’t find it in any IPCC reports. Two minutes into a lecture about how climate sceptics misrepresent the the science for political ends, and Oreskes has herself done precisely that.

Her next offering is an “unequivocal” statement from the IPCC TAR (2001):

“Human activities… are modifying the concentrations of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions”

But here is the entire paragraph, from which she quotes selectively:

Human activities — primarily burning of fossil fuels and changes in land cover — are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents or properties of the surface that absorb or scatter radiant energy. The WGI contribution to the TAR—Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis—found, “In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” Future changes in climate are expected to include additional warming, changes in precipitation patterns and amounts, sea-level rise, and changes in the frequency and intensity of some extreme events.

“Most” and “likely”. “Unequivocal”. Spot the difference. Undaunted, Oreskes quotes the IPCC’s 1995 Second Assessment report to show that “in fact, the scientific community had actually already come to a consensus that global warming was beginning to happen in 1995”:

“The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human impact [sic] on global climate”

And here is the full section from which she quotes:

Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors. These include the magnitude and patterns of long term natural variability and the time evolving pattern of forcing by, and response to, changes in concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and land surface changes. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.

In 1995, the scientific consensus, if that is what the IPCC represents, was little more than “we don’t know”. But, according to Oreskes, the consensus is even older than that. She quotes from a press release that announced the publication in 1979 of the US National Research Council’s Charney Report:

A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use

which is, she says, a

very clear statement of what it was that scientists felt they had come to understand. In short, there was already a consensus in 1979 that global warming would happen. And that it was not a small issue.

See what she did there? The fact that a 1979 press release used the word “consensus” (or more specifically, the words “indicates a consensus”) means that, in 1979, there was a consensus. Hey, it’s easy this history of science.

And who needs a consensus anyway? Lyndon B Johnson didn’t. His message to congress in 1965 (“in the days when politicians actually listened to scientists” says Oreskes) that “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels” demonstrates the gathering political momentum, she says. But here’s Johnson’s quote in its original context:

Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Entire regional airsheds, crop plant environments, and river basins are heavy with noxious materials. Motor vehicles and home heating plants, municipal dumps and factories continually hurl pollutants into the air we breathe. Each day almost 50,000 tons of unpleasant, and sometimes poisonous, sulfur dioxide are added to the atmosphere, and our automobiles produce almost 300,000 tons of other pollutants.

Johnson’s 5,500 word message contained just that one reference to carbon. And nothing about climate change. It talks instead about clean air, disposal of waste, pesticides, that sort of thing. But Oreskes makes it look as though anthropogenic climate change was high on the political agenda 40 years ago.

The scientific case really firmed up, she says, in the 1970s. And importantly, she insists, the science was not yet politicised. She cites three studies, including one from the JASON Committee in 1979, which was commissioned by the US government amid a fuel crisis to analyse the environmental repercussions of a switch from oil to coal. The report featured an early climate model. The abstract of the paper says:

Calculation with this zonally averaged model shows an increase of average surface temperature of 2.4 deg for a doubling of CO2. The equatorial temperature increases by 0.7 K, while the poles warm up by 10 to 12 K. Effects of the warming of the climate are discussed.

Burning coal would exacerbate the problem, they concluded. We resist the temptation to shout “it’s all about oil”. And of course, Oreskes is guided only by the cold, hard facts of science. She presents a graphic from NOAA, to show how the JASON report’s predictions have been confirmed by subsequent data:

This graphic does more than merely support the model, she says – it shows that the prediction has come true to a “startling degree”:

They also predicted an effect which we now call ‘polar amplifaction’; that the effect would be greatest at the poles, maybe as much as 10-12 degrees incre
ase in temperature at the poles, for doubling of CO2. So, in other words, four or five times as great as the global average. Well, I want to jump ahead in my narrative for just a moment, because it’s not that common that scientific predictions actually come true. Or at least not that often that they come true to a high degree of specificity. But this is an example of a prediction that has come true to a startling degree. So this is a map recently released by NOAA that shows the mean surface temperature increase compared to a base period 1951-1980. But not just average for the whole world, but showing you how the changes are different in different regions. So the global mean increase for this period, or now, compared to this period is half a degree centigrade. But look at the polar regions; look at Alaska. The increase in Alaska is 2.1 degrees. That’s four times the global mean. That’s exactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979.

“[E]xactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979″ our collective arses. Were Alaska representative of the entire Polar regions, she might have a point. But it isn’t. Most of the Northern Polar region’s temperature anomaly is +1.2-1.6 or +0.8-1.2. And we can see there is just one small area of the Southern Polar region which is warmer than the global mean. Oreskes has selected an unrepresentative worst-case to support her point. From the evidence she presents, it would be equally justified to argue that the model predictions were wrong to a “startling degree” on the basis that parts of Africa, Asia and South America have seen temperature rises as big as those in Alaska. (And remember that the 2D projection used in the figure artificially increases the apparent size of Alaska compared to the Tropics.)

Anyway, the story goes that the Charney and JASON reports, among others, grabbed the attention of the White House. The IPCC was established in 1988, and in 1992 George Bush Sr. signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set the stage for the Kyoto Protocol. Mother Nature was going to be OK. Except that then it all started to go horribly wrong. Oreskes wonders why:

If scientists understood in 1979 that global warming was going to happen, and if they knew by the early 1990s that it was starting to happen, and if our first president Bush signed the framework convention, why are we still here, in 2007, still arguing about whether global warming is even happening?

This question is the subject of the second half of Oreskes’ talk. In her own words, “the first half of this talk was about the truth; the second half is about the denial”.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so, really trying to understand what has happened here in the United States in the past fifteen or twenty years and I believe the answer is explained by one very strange poll result. The fact is that although the American people are now convinced that global warming is indeed happening, more than half the American people still think that scientists are still arguing about it.

This apparent contradiction is not, says Oreskes, the result of disagreements between scientists (as we can see do exist) and/or disagreements between the scientific predictions and observations (ditto). Nope…

We, the American people, think that scientists are still arguing about it because this is in fact what we have been repeatedly told.

That is to say that what the American public are being told is false, and they believe it, and this belief is reflected in the poll. Oreskes says that the sort of falsehoods peddled

include that there is no proof – that the science is uncertain. That there’s no consensus – that scientists are divided. That if warming is happening, it’s not anthropogenic, it’s just natural variability. If it is anthropogenic, it isn’t necessarily bad. That we can adapt to any changes that might occur. And that controlling greenhouse gases emissions would cost jobs, harm, or even destroy the U.S. economy.

Having just failed so spectacularly to prove the robustness of the consensus, Oreskes might wonder why anyone should find any of these challenges particularly outlandish. (And how can there possibly be a scientific consensus that we cannot adapt to any changes that might occur, or that controlling greenhouse gas emissions would not cause economic harm?) But instead, she asks: “When did scientific uncertainty become a political tactic?” (When surely a more pertinent question for an historian of science is: When did certainty start having anything to do with science?)

She tells us that the history of denialism is as long as that of the consensus on climate change. And at the heart of the denial industry is the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.

The Institute was founded, according to Oreskes, to defend Ronald Reagan’s plans for the SDI “Star Wars” project. Members of the GCMI would make public statements in the mass media, to show that scientists were not “unified in their opposition, but in fact were arguing about it”, and would threaten to sue under a Fairness Doctrine that required balance in the media at the time. She asks:

If you have 6500 physicists opposing a program [SDI], and three supporting it, then what kind of balance would it be if you gave equal time to the three?

By the 1990s, however, the cold war was over, leaving the GCMI without a purpose. They employed their skills instead to casting doubt on the mainstream science of global warming, says Oreskes. To illustrate the point, she shows a graphic from a 2004 study by Boykoff and Boykoff of global warming press coverage between 1988 and 2002.

There is a number of problems with this approach. First, the study looked at only four publications – NY Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Such prestige publications are far more likely to report cutting-edge, controversial research, and are more likely to seek a counter opinion so as not to insult their audience. Second, this shows just one level of media bias – of which there are many (like which research gets covered in the first place. And indeed, the Boycoff study is not without it’s own biases. For example, it tells us on page 1 that, “The continuous juggling act journalists engage in, often mitigates against meaningful, accurate, and urgent coverage of the issue of global warming.”) Third, the study looks for agreement between the thrust of an article and the “consensus position” that AGW is real and is happening. In which case, a story reporting James Hansen’s claim that global warming will “result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century” will be put in the AGW dominant/exclusive categories, while a story along the lines of “global warming unlikely to cause significant problems to New York City in the near future” will find itself in one of the sceptic categories – even though the latter is closer than the former to the IPCC position. The statement “global warming is happening” simply isn’t sophisticated enough itself to provide anything meaningful to measure statements by. The analysis lacks any measure of how far a story departs from the IPCC – in either direction. Fourth, it assumes that the “global warming is happening” side has not engaged with tactics of its own. Yet, as we can see, the unsophisticated “global warming is happening” statement can turn barking mad statements about climate science into truth, while assigning informed caution to the “denier” camp. Is that n
ot a tactic? It certainly looks tactical. And, of course, the message that we’re all going to die, because something really really horrible is about to happen is also a tactic – one that we have referred to here as “the politics of fear”. Such tactics ask us to suspend our judgement because the consequences are just too great. Yet Oreskes shows that, if we suspend judgment, anything can pass as evidence. Fifth, Oreskes uses the statistics from the report with no historical perspective. Another graphic from the same study reveals the more interesting picture that, from about 1996, the number of “balanced” articles is roughly equal to the number of stories which push the AGW line:

Oreskes then says that it is an irony that the Reagan Administration had been dismantling the Fairness Doctrine, “which it viewed as unnecessary government intervention in communication markets”. Huh? Yes, it is ironic, but only because it undermines her own argument that there is a cabal of Republicans bent on distorting the scientific message.

“As the science became firmer”, says Oreskes, the “attacks became harsher and more personal”. She highlights a “highly personal attack” against IPCC lead author on the 1995 IPCC SAR, Benjamin Santer, by Frederick Seitz (GCMI Chairman), William Nierenberg, and S. Fred Singer, who, in an open letter to the IPCC…

accused Santer of making “unauthorized” changes to the IPCC reports to downplay doubts, make science seem firmer than it was

That’s a personal attack? As it happens, it is true that Santer made changes to the report subsequent to its approval, but before its publication. The letter claimed that Santer had removed the following three clauses, which had been agreed to by the authors, reviewers and governments:

“None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gasses.”

“No Study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic causes.”

“Any claims of positive detection of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced.”

This “personal attack” was neither groundless nor personal. Santer took responsibility for the changes, though it emerged that he had been “prevailed upon” to make the chapter consistent with the Summary for Policymakers (a point acknowledged by Fred Singer). Oreskes goes on to claim that the alteration was legitimate and within the peer-review process, as though it were the final word. But as Fred Seitz has pointed out:

Dr. Santer says that “IPCC procedures require changes in response to comments,” Of course they do, but not after the governments have accepted the final draft. The fact is that someone connected with the presentation of the published version — presumably Dr. Santer and others — rewrote basic technical material in Chapter 8 with the result that scientific doubts about man-made global warming were suppressed. Clearly, governments will have to look elsewhere than the IPCC for sound science on climate change.

Whether or not the revision was legitimate in terms of the IPCC process, it reveals something rather murky. Oreskes, meanwhile, sets the legitimate dispute up as an attempt to smear honest scientists, who had no questions to answer. She then proceeds to tell us “who Fredrick Seitz was”… Beginning with his academic credentials, and a few of his career highlights, culminating in his last paying job…

In 1979, Fredrick Seitz became an advisor to the R.J. Reynolds Corporation. His job was to direct a medical research program to confound the links between tobacco and cancer. Between 1975 and 1989 RJR Nabisco Company, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spent $45 million on this program. And from 1978 onwards, Seitz was its director. The focus of the program was to (quote) identify highly promising young investigators who are underfunded at present, and to fund them to do research that could be then used to argue that the scientific evidence was uncertain.

The next few minutes are spent going over old documents and speeches to show that the point of the scientific research was to build a case against litigation in the US courts. The important thing about this, Oreskes says, is that it shows that science was used not to show how tobacco was safe, but to create reasonable doubt. She then moves on to Fred Singer, and his work in challenging various “consensus” positions on environmental issues, and “defending tobacco”. Her point, it seems, is to show that in the cases of acid rain, CFCs, and environmental tobacco smoke, these men used the same argument: the science was uncertain, concerns were exaggerated, technology will solve the problem, no need for government interference. This is what Oreskes calls the “Tobacco Strategy”.

But why would they do this – attack science, defend tobacco – Oreskes wonders. It’s politics, she says. They are against regulation. It’s the ideology of laissez-faire. Earlier in their careers, when these men were working to defend Regan’s SDI program, they were driven, according to Oreskes, by anti-communism. They object to regulations and environmental laws because they represent “creeping communism”. Testing the men’s actions and words against the maxim that “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”, Oreskes concludes that it is indeed vice that Singer and Seitz are engaged in. They do not “make a political argument on political grounds”, she complains, and they “disguised a political debate as a scientific one”. She charges them with misrepresenting the science, confusing the American people, and, in the case of climate change, delaying political action on one of the most pressing global issues of our time.

To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between “denialist” arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.

In Oreskes’ world, a warm Alaska is enough to prove the 1979 theory of Polar Amplification, a single graph from a biased study is enough to show that the media is dominated by a secret political agenda, and the dealings of two dodgy scientists is apparently enough to undermine the good work of climate science in the eyes of the public – a public that she sees as an unthinking, uncritical mob who just sit there swallowing any old rubbish that is thrown at them. Oreskes accuses others of “distorting science”, ”
tactics” and “political motivation”. But her argument is all three. She lies to show that others have lied. She distorts the science to show that others have distorted the science. She points to others’ political agendas to conceal her own. She does not search for agreement between scientists about theories, and she does not look for agreements between theories and observations to prove a consensus. It doesn’t matter to Oreskes what the science is, or whether it can be verified, nor even if it is consistent. She is only interested in consensus. And consensus is about politics, not science.

But despite the onslaught from the influential denialists, the fact remains that – according to Oreskes’ own figures – 62% of the US public “believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. If any distorted message is getting through to the American poublic, obviously it does not come from the denier camp. Oreskes’ problem is not that science gets distorted for political ends, but that that distortion is not always in the direction that she would prefer. One can only assume that Oreskes would be happier only if the message that was getting through was even more unrepresentative – and even more hysterical – than it already is.

Climate Deniers Are Slaves to Democracy

Posted by admin on January 23, 2008
Jan 232008

On the New Scientist (which is neither) blog last week, Catherine Brahic, the rag’s online environment reporter was struck by a paper published in the journal Climatic Change. Brahic summarises:

Davidson claims that historical hindsight shows how preposterous the claims made in favour of slavery were. He suggests they bear striking resemblance to claims made against taking any action on climate change by contemporary members of Congress. 

Like the mag itself, this argument is neither new nor science. It poses as philosophy. Which is fine. But really it’s just a rehash of the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut. Yet it is still interesting, because, just like the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut, it tells us more about the people making it than it does about its subjects. In spite of being ‘not convinced the comparison is helpful’, Brahic is sufficiently sympathetic to finish her article with the cynical words:

Political decisions are based on money, not morals. 

It’s that money argument, again, even though abolition is about as good an example of a political decision based on morality rather than money that you are likely to find. Brahic’s sympathy for Davidson’s thesis appears to be based on the idea that arguments for the continuation of slavery were preposterous, and business-as-usual arguments are preposterous, therefore, denying climate change is as bad as being in favour of slavery. Or something.

The causes of ‘bad science’ in today’s society – such as the rise of alternative therapies, creationism, and new religious movements – are the subject of many a hand-waving thesis. But when that discussion extends to arguments about the role of oil and money in society, people claiming to have science on their side are adding bad politics, bad history and bad philosophy to the mix. And in his paper, Parallels In Reactionary Argumentation In The US Congressional Debates On The Abolition of Slavery And The Kyoto Protocol, Marc D. Davidson certainly claims to have science on his side. In fact, he goes as far as to equate the science of climate with the morality of equality. Well, he has to really, otherwise he wouldn’t have a paper to write. Davidson’s abstract reads:

Today, the United States is as dependent on fossil fuels for its patterns of consumption and production as its South was on slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. That US congressmen tend to rationalise fossil fuel use despite climate risks to future generations just as Southern congressmen rationalised slavery despite ideals of equality is perhaps unsurprising, then. This article explores similarities between the rationalisation of slavery in the abolition debates and the rationalisation of ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases in the US congressional debates on the Kyoto Protocol. 

He then makes equivalents of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1856 13th Amendment to the US constitution, abolishing slavery. The earlier document, states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. 

On the UNFCCC agreement, Davidson writes:

Despite this commitment [“to protect the climate system for present and future generations.”], the US Congress has as yet rejected any mandatory regulation of greenhouse gases, including the binding emission targets for the industrialised nations agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol 

But how is using slaves the moral equivalent of using oil? The subtitle of the second section of Davidson’s article – ‘Similarities between slavery and the use of fossil fuels’ – promises to answer the question… but doesn’t. Instead Davidson argues that they are similar because (i) abolition of slavery/oil is not in the interests of the electorate – people who had a vote did not have an economic interest in abolishing slavery, or in the later case, oil; (ii) the electorate shifts costs onto those outside of the electorate – the slaves do all the work in the same way that oil does, and the costs of using that oil (as opposed to labour) are borne by future generations, who are not yet part of the electorate; and (iii) arguments against both the slave trade, and efforts to reduce CO2 are similar because they both resist social change.

Davidson’s problem, it seems, is with democracy – that it does not represent the interests of people who do not yet exist; people in the future are excluded from the process because they aren’t alive yet, just as slaves were denied access to the democratic process. But this does not make equivalents of using slaves and using oil. In order to be deprived of ‘rights’ it is necessary to exist. So to grant rights to people who do not exist, or to claim that they are being denied their rights, or to imply that you somehow speak for them are all totally absurd.

And it’s far from clear that using oil does leave a cost for future generations to pay. This claim cannot be tested until such time as such people exist. It is a significant assumption. Davidson defers the argument to the future, in order to escape being challenged. And he admits that reducing CO2 emissions is not without its detrimental effects: after all, he agrees that it’s not in the electorate’s interests. It is democracy itself which creates slaves out of the humans of the future, according to Davidson; democracy is the means by which social progress is thwarted; it cannot transcend self-interest in favour of the interests of people he has conjured from his imagination. The “social progress” (and it is neither) he has in mind (even though he agrees it’s not in people’s interests) is one where people who don’t exist yet are spoken for by anyone who wants to call the precautionary principle, against the interests of people who actually exist.

More interestingly, especially given that he’s a philosopher, Davidson doesn’t even explain why slavery is wrong. Slavery is wrong, of course. But if you want to show that something else is wrong in a similar way, you have to make it clear why it is wrong. Were we to claim that tap-dancing is the moral equivalent of drug-pushing you’d want to know why. If we answered in terms that failed to connect tap-dancing to drug-pushing, you’d close your browser, never to return.

Phillis Wheatley was a slave from Gambia bought by a wealthy Boston Family at the age of just seven in the mid 1700s. Unusually, the family encouraged her to read and write, especially poetry – for which she became famous on merit.

On being brought from Africa to America

`Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

You don’t need to be a Christian to see the message. Wheatley was grateful for being brought to the USA, and for the opportunities she had, but not for being bought and sold as a slave. This is pertinent because no barrel of oil could ever write a poem which expresses such potential. As her poem suggests, the act of buying, selling, or using slaves is immoral because it creates a relationship between people which degrades humanity, when in fact, slaves were in every respect as capable of achieving as much and contributing to civilisation as their white counterparts.

The trouble for Davidson is that were he to state a principled objection to slavery, he would undermine his own argument. It would fall apart because, of course, people are not oil. It is only by dint of similarities in the shape of certain arguments, without historical and political context, superficially sharing some conceptual space, that slavery and oil usage can be seen as moral equivalents. Morality, for Davidson is more like geometry than an expression of humanity. This reveals far more than any resemblance between arguments against abolition and against climate change mitigation.

Davidson goes on to look for more geometrical congruence between arguments made hundreds of years apart, and finds another six arguments used by both Kyoto sceptics and anti-abolitionists: (i) What is deemed bad is in fact good; (ii) The benefits of the proposed policy are uncertain; (iii) Change brings economic ruin; (iv) Solo action will be ineffective and unfair; (v) Sovereignty will be undermined; (vi) Social change will hit other groups.

This is utterly mundane. What political issue is not debated on these lines? What divides camps on any matter, where one sees a thing as a good, and the other bad, with one arguing for either progressive or retrogressive change, the other for the status quo? Davidson might just as well argue that using oil and using slaves are moral equivalents because arguments in favour of their continuation were both constructed using words and marks of punctuation, arranged into sentences. What he is describing are six questions that will likely be at the centre of any political discussion about change. The closer you look at these six points, the sillier they become. In fact we are starting to seriously wonder whether his paper is some sort of clever spoof.

(i) Opposing political ideas will necessarily always differ about what is bad, and what is good. That’s why we have arguments. From some perspectives, a welfare state is bad, while others maintain that it is a good. Environmentalists argue that industrial society is bad, and deep ecologists argue that nature is itself a good. Others see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’. Davidson juxtaposes statements by vice president John Caldwell Calhoun, on February 6, 1837 with bogeyman du jour, Senator James Inhofe:

“the Central African race…had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition as that which it now enjoyed in the Southern States”…Slavery was not “an evil. Not at all. It was a good – a great good.”John Caldwell Calhoun 

“Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophic predictions by alarmists. In fact, it appears just the opposite is true, that increases in global temperature have beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” – Sen. James Inhofe.

We know why slavery is wrong. It deprives individuals of their liberty, and the institution limits the development of human society. Meanwhile, Inhofe’s point finds support among among many mainstream climate scientists, such as the Tyndall Centre’s Professor Mike Hulme, who has observed that catastrophe “is not the language of science. And the idea that climate change might produce benefits – however true or false it is – is not a moral argument. By contrast, the ideas that slavery is either right and good or wrong and bad are not testable, are moral arguments, and more to the point, slavery is an idea which disgusts us today not because of scientific investigation, but because of our understanding of humanity. Yet Davidson uses scientific and moral arguments as though they were interchangable.

(ii) The benefits of any proposed policy are always uncertain to any opponent. How can somebody who doesn’t see the policy as good, ever see the benefits as certain?

(iii) No doubt the end of slavery did bring economic problems, and yes, sceptics do worry about the economic costs of policies to mitigate climate change. But anyone who cites the Stern report in support of immediate mitigation also makes an economic argument. Does that make them the moral equivalent of slave traders, too? And even Davidson agrees that the economic effects of Kyoto would cause economic problems.

Although economic forecasts vary widely, there are few studies predicting that climate policy will benefit employment or economic growth. 

(iv) It is precisely the environmentalists who are arguing that solo action will be ineffective and unfair. That is why they – and Davidson – are calling for international frameworks.

(v) Sovereignty is not only a key concept in most political theories, it was also at the heart of the abolitionist argument, for slavery denies personal sovereignty. Davidson contrasts the argument that it is for individual states to decide the legal status of slavery in the 1800s with more recent complaints about supranational organisations (IPCC) creating policy frameworks.

As sincere as this fear of supranational bodies may be, however, the arguments become suspect if they are not accompanied by proposals for unilateral action. 

And yet he’s already claimed that the “solo action will be ineffective and unfair” argument is “reactionary”! Only, it seems, if it doesn’t conform to climate orthodoxy. Again, Davidson’s contempt for democracy is palpable.

(vi) All change creates winners and losers. Whether that change is progressive, or retrogressive, is, of course, the point. And as political scientist Harold D. Lasswell explained, “
Politics is who gets what, when, and how.” Even Davidson recognises this…

Apart from specific groups like manufacturers of solar cells or windmills, few people have a personal interest in rising energy prices.  

For Davidson, Kyoto sceptics are “reactionaries”, but it is Davidson who shows contempt for democracy, and for politics. He is unable to make moral equivalents of slavery and using oil, and so searches for abstract ways to connect them that bear no scrutiny. In doing so, he also shows contempt for humans. The relationship between slave and master is vicious, exploitative, and deliberate. The link between slaves and not-yet-existing-slave-like-people-of-the-future is merely tortured. The only person deliberately exploiting future generations is Davidson. The irony is that it is people in the present who suffer.

Nobody Expects the Cimate Inquisition

Posted by admin on August 8, 2007
Aug 082007

‘Sustainable’ blogging (geddit?) is a bit difficult when even the green news-makers have jetted off to catch some sun… This isn’t climate change, it’s silly season, and there’s not much news around.

We have reported before how the environmentalist’s view of the future shares something with the Taliban. Now we bring you… calls for a climate inquisition. Jamais Casico, futurologist and founder of http://www.worldchanging.com/ isn’t the first to call for trials for global warming ‘denialists’. Gristmill’s David Roberts can claim that honour. But that doesn’t make Casico’s comments any less shocking.

Speaking/fantasising about the possibility of a second event such as Hurricane Katrina to hit the USA, regardless of whether or not global warming is the cause (and it seems, regardless of whether or not humans caused it), Casico writes on his blog,

For the global warming denial industry, congressional hearings will be the least of their worries. In a post-Katrina II America, aware that some of the largest companies and the most influential think tanks worked hard to make sure that attempts to mitigate climate disruption were stopped, the perpetrators of this crime may face far greater trials. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch. 

The ‘crime’, it seems is not that corporates and individuals are responsible for the material act of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, but that daring to voice their opinion influences people to continue to consume, which causes CO2 to be emitted. Casico can charge ‘the deniers’ with nothing more than thought crime. Casico cannot comprehend that anyone might have a reasonable objection to either climate science or political orthodoxies, and so speculates as to what is driving ‘denial’:

The companies and think tanks involved in the denialist effort come across not as defenders of their beliefs and industry, but as people willing to say and do anything to protect the accumulation of short-term profits, the future (and the world) be damned. 

Aside from the sinister fantasy of lynch mobs rounding up his political enemies, which Casico seems to be indulging in, what this commentary reveals is another case of the escalation of rhetoric against ‘sceptics and deniers’ that is designed to close down debate and claim the moral high ground. This time, not by making equivalents of sceptics and holocaust deniers, but by equally hollow appeals to victimhood on behalf of people who don’t even exist yet, whose lives have been ruined by something that hasn’t happened yet.

If a dark, nasty future didn’t exist, Jamais Casico would have to invent it – which is precisely what he’s doing. It is only by fantasising about the future that Casico can find people guilty in the present. And for all the complaints about corporates gambling with the future, he has carved himself quite a profitable niche with his bleak visions. Yet this contemporary Nostradamus has a lmited imagination; all he can think of is reasons to avoid the future, not ways of making it better.

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