Hacking the Climate Da Vinci Code

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

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

We don’t think it would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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