The IPCC and the Melting Glaciers Story

This is a big post in two parts. The first is our take on the current story about the Himalayan glaciers. The second is a similar case of non-scientific research being passed off as ‘science’.

A story in the Sunday Times demonstrates the murky nature of the process by which ‘scientific facts’ become established in the climate debate.

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

The No Scientist has, in recent years, become something of an organ of the environmental movement, abandoning cool, rational, empirical scientific detachment for high moral tones, shrill alarmist stories, and a rather one-sided treatment of both the politics and science of the climate debate. No surprises here – we’ve covered the NS’s appalling commentary in many previous posts. What is interesting is how the partiality of science journalists exists as part of its own positive-feedback mechanism, such that oversight turns into ‘scientific fact’. So how does a journalist’s credulousness actually produce ‘consensus science’?

The original article by the celebrated New Scientist environmental correspondent, Fred Pearce was published in 1999. It reported that,

“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating,” says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the chief author of the ICSI report. A typical example is the Gangorti glacier at the head of the River Ganges, which is retreating at a rate of 30 metres per year. Hasnain’s four-year study indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.”

In 2005, the WWF, published its report, An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China. It cited Pearce’s article.

The New Scientist magazine carried the article “Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities” in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”. The article also predicted that freshwater flow in rivers across South Asia will “eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages”.

In 2007, the IPCC cites the WWF

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

This process is what we have called, ‘Chinese Whispers’, after the party game of the same name. Ambiguity, caveats, and uncertainty get removed from scientific research through citation, especially across discipline areas, and when passed between the social and material sciences. Certainty is amplified; the context of scientific research is lost, rendering it meaningless. Why is the IPCC citing the WWF as a source of scientific data, when first, the WWF is neither a scientific, nor a research organisation, but has a specific agenda, and second, when it has the work of an entire working group (WGI) dedicated to providing the ‘scientific basis’, to call upon?

The Times quotes Pearce,

The IPCC’s reliance on Hasnain’s 1999 interview has been highlighted by Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist. Pearce said he rang Hasnain in India in 1999 after spotting his claims in an Indian magazine. Pearce said: “Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain. The report had not been peer reviewed or formally published in a scientific journal and it had no formal status so I reported his work on that basis.”

So Pearce apparently found the claims sufficiently interesting, even though they appeared to have no basis in science. Pearce continues:

“Since then I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt. However, he did make clear that his comments related only to part of the Himalayan glaciers. not the whole massif.”

It is not clear when, since 1999, Pearce found a copy of Hasnain’s report. We haven’t found any attempt to address his mistake. Reflecting on the error in a recent edition of the New Scientist, Pearce says,

Despite the 10-year-old New Scientist report being the only source, the claim found its way into the IPCC fourth assessment report published in 2007. Moreover the claim was extrapolated to include all glaciers in the Himalayas.

Writing on the BBC’s website, Indian Journalist, Pallava Bagla, points out that the IPCC reproduced the error,

The IPCC relied on three documents to arrive at 2035 as the “outer year” for shrinkage of glaciers.

They are: a 2005 World Wide Fund for Nature report on glaciers; a 1996 Unesco document on hydrology; and a 1999 news report in New Scientist.

Incidentally, none of these documents have been reviewed by peer professionals, which is what the IPCC is mandated to be doing.

Since Pearce’s mistake in 1999, he has written many books on the climate issue.

  • Last Generation – How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change
  • When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens When Our Water Runs Out?
  • Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes from
  • The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future
  • With Speed and Violence : Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
  • The Big Green Book
  • Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World
  • Fragile Earth: Views of a Changing World
  • Deep Jungle: Journey to the Heart of the Rainforest
  • Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization
  • Regis: Regional Climate Change Impact and Response Studies in East Anglia and North West England
  • Turning Up the Heat

Before his 1999 article, he penned,

  • Ian and Fred’s Big Green Book
  • Green Warriors: The People and the Politics behind the Environmental Revolution.
  • ADVENTURES AT THE ZOO
  • Turning Up The Heat – Our Perilous Future In The Global Greenhouse
  • Dammed, the:Rivers, Dams and the Coming World Water Crisis
  • Acid Rain (Penguin Special)
  • Turning Up the Heat: Our Perilous Future in the Global Greenhouse
  • Global Warming
  • Watershed: Collapse of Britain’s Water Supply
  • Greenprint for Action
  • Climate and Man: From the Ice Ages to the Global Greenhouse
  • Climate change impacts in the UK

It is inconceivable that as prolific a writer on the climate as Pearce can be unaware of the influence of his error. It is more than obvious that Pearce has a political agenda that exists prior to ‘the science’ he reports. This prior-ness is something we have emphasised here on Climate Resistance as fundamental to understanding the phenomenon of environmentalism: the disaster scenario is the premise of environmental politics, not the conclusion of environmental science. Once this premise is accepted, so to speak, a priori, the conclusion becomes a given; the ‘science’ is almost immaterial, it merely gives numbers to what is already given.

It does not stretch the imagination, then, to suggest that Pearce was happy to overlook the lack of scientific foundations in Hasnain’s 1999 report, and happy for the error to be amplified, and reproduced firstly by the WWF, and then by the IPCC.

Happy that is, until now. The 11 January New Scientist article, which carries his name, speaks about himself as “a journalist”, as though he had nothing to do with it.

However, the lead author of the IPCC chapter, Indian glaciologist Murari Lal, told New Scientist he “outright rejected” the notion that the IPCC was off the mark on Himalayan glaciers. “The IPCC authors did exactly what was expected from them,” he says.“We relied rather heavily on grey [not peer-reviewed] literature, including the WWF report,” Lal says. “The error, if any, lies with Dr Hasnain’s assertion and not with the IPCC authors.”

But Hasnain rejects that. He blames the IPCC for misusing a remark he made to a journalist. “The magic number of 2035 has not [been] mentioned in any research papers written by me, as no peer-reviewed journal will accept speculative figures,” he told New Scientist.

It might have been more appropriate for Pearce to use the word “me”, and accept his role in this brouhaha.

But for the moment, at least he seems to be thinking about the process he is a small part of. His latest article demonstrates the rifts that are emerging in the wake of the affair.

Glaciologists are this week arguing over how a highly contentious claim about the speed at which glaciers are melting came to be included in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Glaciologists, it seems, are now at odds with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

The IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, has hit back, denouncing the Indian government report as “voodoo science” lacking peer review.

Yet, clearly, following the words of Lal, about using non-peer-reviewed literature, Pachauri, on behalf of the IPCC has some serious questions to answer that are not answered by hand waving with statements about ‘voodoo science’.

One of the most frequent criticisms of climate sceptics is that their arguments lack foundation in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Yet here we see that in fact, one of the central claims made in the case for political action to mitigate climate change, had only a speculative basis in science.

Part 2

This all reminds us of a story we were working on a while ago. In Septmber 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”. We were unconvinced already. Humans are by definition not at the heart of any eco-centric view of the world. Moreover, the climate issue has been adopted by one-time development agencies to instead emphasise not developing as the most ‘progressive’ course of action for the world’s poorest people.

In failing to tackle global warming with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialised nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability. The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture. Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.

In our view, Oxfam had given up on the very concept of industrial and economic development as fundamental conditions of political development. Thus poorly conceived ideas about “human rights” had been married with climate change alarmism, to produce a chimera that expressed even greater intellectual poverty than its parents. We began looking at the claims made in the report, and tried to establish where they had come from. For a part-time, unfunded project such as Climate Resistance, this proved to be simply far too time-consuming, and other things were happening, such as the UK’s Climate Change Bill was being put (shoved) through Parliament.

We began compiling a list of the claims made by Oxfam, with the intention of asking them to show what their basis for them was. For instance, in the quote above, Oxfam say that scientific certainty exists about the relationship between the carbon emissions of industrialised countries and floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability that they have, allegedly, produced. We didn’t think that this was an appropriate emphasis of “scientific certainty”. Where had it come from?

What attracted our attention most, however, was this claim

According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger. [Pg. 2]

We looked to see if it was true. All we could find was this.

In other [African] countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003). [IPCC WGII, Page 448. 9.4.4]

Oxfam cite the IPCC, but the citation belongs to Agoumi. The IPCC reference the paper properly:

Agoumi, A., 2003: Vulnerability of North African countries to climatic changes: adaptation and implementation strategies for climatic change. Developing Perspectives on Climate Change: Issues and Analysis from Developing Countries and Countries with Economies in Transition. IISD/Climate Change Knowledge Network, 14 pp. http://www.cckn.net//pdf/north_africa.pdf.

There is only limited discussion of “deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture” in that paper, and its focus is not ‘some’ African countries, but just three: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It is not climate research. It is a discussion about the possible effects of climate change. All that it says in relation to the IPCC quote, is that,

Studies on the future of vital agriculture in the region have shown the following risks, which are linked to climate change:

  • greater erosion, leading to widespread soil degradation;
  • deficient yields from rain-based agriculture of up to 50 per cent during the 2000–2020 period;
  • reduced crop growth period;

Most interestingly, the study was not simply produced by some academic working in some academic department. Instead, it was published by The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). According to the report itself,

The International Institute for Sustainable Development contributes to sustainable development by advancing policy recommendations on international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change, measurement and indicators, and natural resource management. By using Internet communications, we report on international negotiations and broker knowledge gained through collaborative projects with global partners, resulting in more rigorous research, capacity building in developing countries and better dialogue between North and South.

Oxfam takes its authority from the IPCC. The IPCC report seemingly takes its authority from a bullet point in a paper published by an organisation with a declared political interest in the sustainability agenda that was the brainchild of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. (Take note: Conservatives are often behind the advance of the sustainability agenda, in spite of claims that it’s a left-wing phenomenon).

That the IPCC is citing non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific  research from quasi governmental semi-independent sustainability advocacy organisations must say something about the dearth of scientific or empirical research. The paper in question barely provides any references for its own claims, yet by virtue of merely appearing in the IPCC’s reports, a single study, put together by a single researcher, becomes “consensus science”.

The situation is simply insane. The IPCC are cited as producers of official science, yet they appear often to take as many liberties with the sources they cite, as those who cite the IPCC – such as Oxfam – go on to do. To ask questions about this process is to stand against ‘the consensus’, to be a ‘denier’, and to be willingly jeopardising the future of millions of people, and inviting the end of the world.

The popular view of the climate debate and politics is that the IPCC and scientists produce the science, which politicians and policymakers respond to, encouraged by NGOs, all reported on by journalists. But as the case of the glacier and North African water studies show, this is a misconception. Science, the media, government, and supra-national political organisations do not exist as sharply distinct institutions. They are nebulous and porous. They merge, and each influence the interpretation and substance of the next iteration of their own product. The distinction between science and politics breaks down in the miasma.

If this process could be mapped, it would be no surprise to us if it was discovered that the IPCC was be found citing itself through citing NGOs and Quasi-NGOs, and other non-peer-reviewed, not scientific literature. This is the real climate feedback mechanism. Sadly, we have no time and no resources for such a survey, as much as we’d like to.

But would it be necessary to ‘debunk’ the IPCC in this way? Maybe not. We can deal with the arguments on their own terms, after all. We have argued here on Climate Resistance that whatever the evidence or strength of the science with respect to the claim that “climate change is happening”, the political argument about how to respond to climate change depends too heavily on the notion that “failure to act” is equivalent to producing a disaster.

To re-iterate our fundamental point, the problem with much of the argument emerging from the sustainability camp – as the report cited by the IPCC who are cited by Oxfam surely is – is that its premise is political, not scientific. That is to say again than the ‘politics is prior’ to the science. It may well be the case that the region that the study focussed on faces increased droughts, and that, historically, agricultural output in those regions vary as rainfall varies, and that rainfall is declining. But this is not the whole story.

If indeed, they are at all true, the claims made in the report, the IPCC and Oxfam, are only significant if we assume that mankind is impotent to address the water problems they describe. But the North African region covered by the study has a coast, lots of sunshine, and a lot of land. Indeed, the area is being considered for a huge solar-energy project that could power much of Europe and the region, and so its water problems could be answered by the development of large-scale desalination infrastructure. The only problem is capital. So it is somewhat ironic that the lack of capital available to provide such a project with momentum is not the subject of Oxfam’s report.

Rekindling the Climate Embers

Goodbye Hockey Stick, hello Burning Embers? A paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences resurrects and updates a fancy graphic published in the IPCC’s TAR in 2001, but which was omitted from AR4 in 2007, and finds – guess what – that global warming is more serious than previously thought.

Gosh, yes, that does look much worse, doesn’t it? The dangers are much more red than they were eight years ago. As Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin puts it:

It vividly shows how, in many areas of concern, the transition to big problems is much closer than research implied eight years ago.

‘Vividly’ is the word. You certainly couldn’t describe it as scientifically informative. For all of the faults of the hockeystick graph, at least it doesn’t substitute numbers with colours of the rainbow.

The study re-assesses vulnerabilities to small rises in Global Mean Temperature (GMT). From the abstract:

Here, we describe revisions of the sensitivities of the RFCs to increases in GMT and a more thorough understanding of the concept of vulnerability that has evolved over the past 7 years. This is based on our expert judgment about new findings in the growing literature since the publication of the TAR in 2001, including literature that was assessed in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), as well as additional research published since AR4. Compared with results reported in the TAR, smaller increases in GMT are now estimated to lead to significant or substantial consequences in the framework of the 5 “reasons for concern.”

Expert judgement is a Good Thing, of course. (Although it’s interesting that in fobbing us off with a fancy colour chart, it asks that we suspend ours.) And here we have the judgement of fifteen experts, including some authors of AR4. But we would suggest that it is perhaps a tad early for co-author Hans-Martin Füssel to claim that it follows from this one study – or consensus within a consensus, if you prefer – that

Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago

Revkin provides some interesting background on why the Burning Embers diagram didn’t make it into AR4:

An updated version of the diagram was created for the panel’s momentous 2007 report on climate, but it met resistance from some scientists who thought the color bars were too vague or subjective and from some governments, which thought the artwork was too unnerving, according to interviews with the lead authors.

In a follow-up post yesterday, Revkin publishes an email from co-lead-author of the paper, Stanford University climatologist and activist Stephen Schneider, which sets out his take on why it was omitted:

We first presented the revised figure at the WG 2 Plenary and it attracted great interest and many calls to include it. Unfortunately governments of 5 fossil fuel dependent and producing nations opposed it. It was never debated in the Plenary since Chapter 19 materials didn’t get into Plenary debate until 9AM the last day after an all night session and a press conference due in one hour and still the Report hadn’t been finished — nothing controversial was possible as there was no time for a contact group. SO in essence it was a casualty of time.

At the Synthesis Plenary there was no time issue, as many countries in writing in advance asked to have it brought back since it was synthetic, and thus even if not appearing in the WG 2 Report, it was still appropriate for the Synthesis, and in addition it was the author’s judgments for graphing what was already approved text — the “reasons for concern” update in words. That did get a floor fight to my memory, and this time if my memory serves, 4 fossil fuel dependent countries accepted the text but refused the figure. Remember, at the UN, consensus means everybody, so a few countries constitute in effect a small successful filibuster. No matter how much New Zealand, small islands states, Canada, Germany, Belgium and the UK said this was an essential diagram, China, the U.S., Russia and the Saudis said it was too much of a “judgment”. But in the TAR it also was a judgment and this was just an update using some of the same authors and the same logic, so their logic was faulty–but their filibuster successful. Hope that helps.

It’s always funny to hear complaints from climate activists that IPCC documents are too conservative as a result of political influence. Because politics is precisely what they are very quick to say the IPCC is not influenced by should anyone suggest that it overstates evidence, or that ‘the consensus’ is rather less scientific than they would have us believe.

Revkin also quotes the IPCC chair:

In an email, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the intergovernmental panel, said he was glad the diagram has been resurrected. “Some of the scientists (including some senior functionaries) involved” in the report “were dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram, and I just could not push it through,” he said. “I am glad that there is a revival of this characterization, which I hope will lead to some discussion and debate.”

‘Push it through’? So that’s what the IPCC chair is there for.

It is entirely appropriate that it is Schneider who should be resurrecting a diagram that was considered by scientists as ‘too vague or subjective’ for AR4, but which nevertheless ‘vividly shows’ how close to disaster we are. After all, in a notorious unguarded moment, he did once make this telling comment to a reporter:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both. [Quoted in: Schell, J., “Our fragile earth,” Discover, 10(10):44-50, October 1989.]

If Schneider was thinking that the burning embers diagram might achieve the sort of influence enjoyed by the hockeystick, he’ll be disappointed with its impact so far. Apart from Revkin’s coverage, the paper has received scant attention in the press. Even the BBC didn’t cover it! Which is doubly surprising given the press release:

Risks of global warming have been underestimated

“Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago,” says Hans-Martin Füssel from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK)

etc

It’s just the sort of presser that can be pasted directly into a new document and called a news report. And since when has the BBC been able to resist that sort of thing?

So what’s going on when the media turn their noses up at good old-fashioned climate catastrophe when it’s handed to them on a plate? Perhaps journalists spotted the following line of small print under the authors’ names and affiliations on the paper:

Contributed by Stephen H. Schneider, December 9, 2008

This indicates that Schneider himself has administrated the peer review process including selection of reviewers. (A privilege that PNAS grants to members of the US National Academy of Sciences.) It’s probably fairly safe to assume that he didn’t pick any of those IPCC scientists who were ‘dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram’.

But we doubt that is the reason somehow. It might be explained in part by the fact that PNAS for some reason did not include the embers paper in its weekly publicity material. But there has to be more to it than that.

Could it be that, following a barage of criticism from the likes of the MET office about catastrophe-mongering by scientists and the media, and following a bout of outlandish claims of the worse-than-previously-thought variety from the likes of Chris Field, James Hansen and James Lovelock, journalists are counting to ten before regurgitating such empty rhetoric? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Then again, now that the UK has its Climate Change Act and the USA’s is well on its way, and with the climate Satan out of the Whitehouse, perhaps there is just less demand or need for salacious news items about our imminent doom.

The Consensus: Carbon DiOccidental?

According to an article at the Register by Andrew Orlowski:

Japanese scientists have made a dramatic break with the UN and Western-backed hypothesis of climate change in a new report from its Energy Commission.

Three of the five researchers disagree with the UN’s IPCC view that recent warming is primarily the consequence of man-made industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. Remarkably, the subtle and nuanced language typical in such reports has been set aside.

It would be unfair to extrapolate from this one report from a single institution to Japanese science in general. But something interesting happens if you look at the representation of experts from Japanese institutions in the IPCC process. Here’s a comparison of the number of Japanese contributors to the IPCC’s AR4 with those from the UK and USA (for which we happen to have the data to hand):

WGI
Contributors           618
Japan                       27
UK                           77
USA                       226

WGII
Contributors           380
Japan                         8
UK                            51
USA                          70

WGIII
Contributors           270
Japan                       20
UK                            16
USA                          50

TOTAL
Contributors         1268
Japan                       55
UK                          144
USA                        356

Japan, a country twice as populous (127m) as the UK (60m) and twice as rich (GDP $4.487 trillion vs $2.279 trillion for the UK), contributes less than half as many experts. The USA’s GDP ($14.58 trillion) is 3.2 times Japan’s and it is 2.4 times as populous, and yet it contributes 6.5 times as many experts over all than Japan, and 8.4 times as many in Working Group I, which reviews the physical science basis for climate change. Neither does Japan’s contribution to the IPCC process reflect its position in the scientific premier league.

The IPCC, we are told, represents ‘the consensus’. It seems it does not, however, include the judgement of many Japanese scientists. Perhaps it’s just that climate is not high on Japan’s research agenda. But then again, perhaps they have good reason for why it isn’t. Either way, the idea that just 55 of ‘the world’s top scientists’ hail from Japan stretches belief.

The Poorly Physician in a Huff

Just over a year ago, we picked up on a post at the miserablist blog, Grist, by Professor Andrew Dessler, former scientific advisor to the Clinton administration. Dessler had compared the planet’s ‘suffering’ from climate change to a child with cancer. ‘Who are his parents going to take him to in order to determine the best course of treatment?’, Dessler asked. Not to the ‘quacks’ (the ‘sceptics’). Better take the child to the real doctors (the IPCC).

Expertise matters. Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. The list of skeptics on the EPW blog contains few bona fide climate specialists. In fact, the only criteria to get on the list, as far as I can tell, is having a PhD and some credential that makes you an academic. So Freeman Dyson makes lists. While I’m certain he’s a smart guy, I would not take a sick child to him, and I won’t take a sick planet to him either. In both cases, he simply does not have the relevant specialist knowledge. That also applies the large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem. The bottom line is that the opinions of most of the skeptics on the list are simply not credible.

As Dessler discovered – after we told him – the IPCC is substantially comprised, not of climate scientists (aka ‘doctors’) but exactly the ‘large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem’ that he accused the membership of the ‘Inhofe 400’ list of being. We surveyed the IPCC authors from WGI, WGII and WGIII hailing from the UK and USA, and found that Dessler’s characterisation of the IPCC didn’t stand up to scrutiny. If Dessler’s claim had not been made by Dessler, but by some run-of-the-mill political hack, his mischaracterisation would be inconsequential. But Dessler cannot claim to have been unaware of what the IPCC is comprised: he’s a climate science professor, and was an advisor to the Clinton administration. If he is was ignorant, he’s employed well above his ablilty. If he wasn’t ignorant, then he’s a straightforward liar. 

Dessler’s shrill tones have not diminished during 2008. Following an article on the usually ‘liberal’ Huffington Post by Harold Ambler, Dessler writes today that Ambler’s article was ‘replete with gross factual errors about the science of climate change’.
  

Word is that this was an editorial slip-up on HuffPo’s part; they don’t typically provide a place for this kind of agitprop. The essay is gone from the site’s portal pages and rumor has it The Huff herself may address the issue soon.

It is always interesting to discover ‘liberals’ acting illiberally. And it is when climate scepticism threatens environmentalism’s influence over the liberal camp that liberals who have bought the green cause get really illiberal. Consider, for example, Bjorn Lomborg, who has never ‘denied’ global warming, climate change, nor that they represent serious problems which ought to be addressed, probably by government intervention. In spite of his rather mild (in comparison to many sceptics’ claims) position, Lomborg was the subject of more vitriol from the alarmist propaganda machine than perhaps any other climate-sceptic/denier/realist figure. Why? Because he is – look at him – super liberal. As liberal qualifications go, you don’t get much more liberal than a gay vegetarian Danish academic. (Denmark – for those who don’t know, is perhaps the most liberal place on earth: it has a tax rate that would make many conservatives go into anaphylactic shock, it has a huge welfare state, and has the lowest income inequality in the world, not to mention one of the highest standards of living.) Whatever you want to call him, the word ‘conservative’ just doesn’t really sum him up. And that is why he terrified the environmental movement. It’s not because he challenged the science, it is because he threatened the political project. He offered a rational and pragmatic methodology to assess the world’s problems that was consistent with liberal values. And in reply, the environmental movement went ballistic. 

So let’s get this straight, the substance of Harold Ambler’s unremarkable essay is of little significance. What’s got up Dessler’s nose is that it was published on the liberal/left Huffington Post. To allow liberals to fall out of line on the climate issue would be to reveal the nebulous character of mainstream liberal thought – without the spectre of immenent catastophe, there’s not much keeping it together. Hence, Dessler diminishes the essay as ‘agitprop’ and welcomes its removal from the ‘portal pages’. Dessler’s rhetoric does two things. First, it tells the reading liberal what to think and legitimises censoriousness. More importantly, second, it fires a shot across the bows of any liberal organ which dares to entertain a climate sceptic on its pages in much the same way as Martin Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle (just 90 minutes of TV in a shedule jam-packed with environmentalism) drew furious comments about Channel 4 from the Great and the Good. It threatens to withdraw the moral authority loaned to liberals by climate science.

If Mahatma Ghandi were still alive and dared to express scepticism about the climate issue, ‘liberals’ reading the ‘liberal media’ would struggle to identify the difference between his views, and those of Ann Coulter.

 

Biased Broadcasting Climate

Dr. Iain Stewart’s new BBC2 series Earth: The Climate Wars promised to be a ‘definitive guide’ to the climate debate. Instead, this week’s episode ‘Fightback’, which focused on the sceptics was as shallow and as hollow as any old commentary. The film’s blurb on BBC iPlayer, advertises it thus:

Dr Iain Stewart investigates the counter attack that was launched by the global warming sceptics in the 1990s.

At the start of the 1990s it seemed the world was united. At the Rio Earth summit the world signed up to a programme of action to start tackling climate change. Even George Bush was there. But the consensus didn’t last.

Iain examines the scientific arguments that developed as the global warming sceptics took on the climate change consensus. The sceptics attacked almost everything that scientists held to be true. They argued that the planet wasn’t warming up, that even if it was it was nothing unusual, and certainly whatever was happening to the climate was nothing to do with human emissions of greenhouse gases.

Iain interviews some of the key global warming sceptics, and discovers how their positions have changed over time.

Before the film has started, it is clear that it lacks objectivity. Notice how the blurb casts the players of the debate as either ‘scientists’ or sceptics’, as if they were mutually exclusive terms. Notice too, how it is supposed to be important that ‘positions have changed over time’, as though the counterpart argument had such integrity that it had never shifted, or responded to emerging evidence. Third, Stewart characterises the 1992 Rio summit (both in the blurb and in the film) as evidence of a consensus, which was seemingly attacked by ‘the sceptics’, when in fact, agreements and frameworks since then have failed for their non-viability, not because of any attack. And there was no such consensus in 1992. As we have pointed out before, in 1992, the ‘consensus’ was characterised very differently to today, and the UNFCCC agreements proceeded not on the basis of scientific evidence and certainty, but according to the precautionary principle.

As the headlines of the 1995 Summary for Policymakers from WGI of the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report (a far slimmer document than today’s reams and reams of graphics and text) shows, the claims to have understood the climate were much more cautious than Stewart implies.

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. […]

1. Greenhouse gas concentrations have continued to increase

2. Anthropogenic aerosols tend to produce negative radiative forcings

3. Climate has changed over the past century

4. The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate

5. Climate is expected to continue to change in the future

6. There are still many uncertainties

Contrary to Stewart’s claim that the world was united by scientific evidence in the early 1990s, even by 1995, there was still only the ‘suggestion’, on the ‘balance of evidence’, that there had been a ‘discernible human influence on global climate’ – and that’s in the Summary for Policymakers document, which has consistently been far more alarmist than the more technical parts of the report. The First Assessment Report, which would have been the basis for the 1992 UNFCCC had concluded that ‘The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more’, making it clear that in the early 1990s, there could have been no consensus as Stewart describes it. As the 1995 report continued:

There are still many uncertainties

Many factors currently limit our ability to project and detect future climate change. In particular, to reduce uncertainties further work is needed on the following priority topics

• Estimation of future emissions and biogeochemical cycling (including sources and sinks) of greenhouse gases, aerosols and aerosol precursors and projections of future concentrations and radiative properties.

• Representation of climate processes in models, especially feedbacks associated with clouds, oceans, sea ice and vegetation, in order to improve projections of rates and regional patterns of climate change.

• Systematic collection of longterm instrumental and proxy observations of climate system variables (e.g., solar output, atmospheric energy balance components, hydrological cycles, ocean characteristics and ecosystem changes) for the purposes of model testing, assessment of temporal and regional variability, and for detection and attribution studies.

Future unexpected, large and rapid climate system changes (as have occurred in the past) are, by their nature, difficult to predict. This implies that future climate changes may also involve “surprises”. In particular, these arise from the nonlinear nature of the climate system. When rapidly forced, nonlinear systems are especially subject to unexpected behaviour. Progress can be made by investigating nonlinear processes and subcomponents of the climatic system. Examples of such nonlinear behaviour include rapid circulation changes in the North Atlantic and feedbacks associated with terrestrial ecosystem changes.

If there were still substantial uncertainties in 1995, then the characterisation of sceptics as changing their argument is highly disingenuous. The arguments they were responding to changed. Before the film has even started, it is apparent that it has false premises.

And in case viewers are still in any doubt about which ‘side’ Iain Stewart is on, the first words he speaks are ‘Global warming – the defining challenge of the 21st century’. This series is obviously intended as the antidote to the Great Global Warming Swindle. Indeed, don’t expect any complaints from the likes of the Royal Society about this one. If this is the definitive guide to anything, it is to how to dress up politics as a science documentary.

The film begins its exploration of the scientific arguments by outlining the sceptic’s objection to confidence placed in the temperature record obtained by weather stations, on the basis that they were too widely distributed to provide an accurate representation of global temperature. Stewart shows how this method had produced an upward trend throughout the 20th Century, but that it contradicted the satellite record produced after the late ’70s. Stewart asks which one is correct – the surface record, or the satellite data?

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This is not, as Stewart claims, a classic scientific problem as much as it is classic bad science. For example, which of the following is correct?

A: 2+2 = 7
B: 2+2 = 1

Stewart explains the urban heat island effect, which, according to him drove the sceptic’s argument, but says there is a counter argument. Across the world, there was evidence that the world was warming: earlier springs, glacial retreat, warming oceans, all of which ‘seemed to back up the thermometer record, not the satellites’.

It was deadlock. one side had to be wrong. And it wasn’t clear which one. Finally, after almost ten years of pouring over the data, someone did find a fault. And it was with the data from the satellites.

Again, why can’t they both be wrong? He goes on to describe how friction, and the consequential downward drift of satellites, distorted the signal being received from Earth. The satellite data was reanalysed, and found to show a slight warming trend.

Now even die hard sceptics had to accept that there had been some warming in the second half of the century. […] The rising temperature was now a fact. With satellites and thermometers confirming it. The sceptic’s challenge had actually made the case stronger. But the battle was far from over.

The logic of Stewart’s argument is that the surface record was correct because the satellite record was wrong. But this is only necessary in an argument in which the thermometer record speaks for ‘the scientists’ and the satellite record speaks for ‘the sceptics’, and all sceptics, and all scientists divide according to these positions. The implication here is that any warming measured by either method substantiates the claim that ‘global warming is happening’, where ‘global warming’ stands for ‘dangerous global warming’, which calls for the ‘something must be done’ of conventional wisdom. Accordingly, Stewart seems to characterise the sceptical position as ‘global warming isn’t happening, therefore it is not necessary to reduce CO2 emissions’. This is not a careful argument, because people – sceptical and not – have been questioning the leaps between observing that the earths temperature changes, the attribution of that change to humans, the conclusion that it will cause catastrophe, and that the only way to confront that catastrophe is by mitigating climate change through reduction in emissions. Each leap – and there are many more – produces its own arguments and counter arguments. The idea that the entire range of arguments rested, at any particular moment, on one paticular scientific controversy is a grotesque simplification of a debate with many sides to it, touching on political, social, economic, scientific and even ethical arguments.

Nonetheless, Stewart continues to the next controversy in the account: the sceptics were now arguing that the temperatures shown by the now synchronised satellite and thermometer records were not unprecedented in earth’s history. The Medieval warm period (MWP), he said they said, showed that today’s temperatures were not unusual. This section of the film begins in Greenland, and explores the idea that it was indeed once Green, to which the counter argument is that the MWP might not have been a global phenomenon. In order to show this idea, Michael Mann – the producer of the infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph – was introduced, amidst a whir of special effects. Mann’s graphic represented a reconstruction of past temperatures, not from thermometers or satellites, but by analysing data from proxies, such as tree-ring width, corals, and ice cores. This graphic is significant to the film for two reasons. First, it removed the Medieval warm period. Second, it depicted current temperatures well above any other time in its scope.

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It is interesting that Stewart should depict Mann as a victim of an attack on his integrity. As part of the team behind the RealClimate.org website, Mann and his team are famously unreserved in attacking their critics, rather than their critics’ work, and removing dissenting opinion from the comments section of the site. As a No Scientist article in 2006 pointed out, Mann’s aggressive character is noteworthy.

Mann, however, still brims with self-confidence. Now at Penn State University, he treats his critics with something close to contempt. “A lot of scientists would have retreated, but Mike is tenacious,” says Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, his collaborator on the climate science blog RealClimate. Mann’s style does not always help matters.

It is is even more surprising that Stewart decides not to investigate the substance of criticisms of Mann and his methodology. This has indeed arguably been one of the biggest scientific controversies in the climate debate. But Stewart does not inform his audience as to the nature of that controversy. Whatsoever.

The graphic Mann produced became an icon for the global warming cause when it was given prominence in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report. The IPCC is widely regarded as being the authority on climate matters, and is intended to be a kind of super-charged peer-review process. But Mann was a lead author on the chapter in which his own study became the centrepiece. In short, Mann was peer-reviewing his own work. This makes about as much sense as a defendant sitting as judge at his own trial. Does this not raise questions about the integrity of the IPCC process?

Second, Mann refused – until recently, after he was ordered to – to release the data relating to his methodology, on the basis that it was his own private property. Similarly, climatologist and Professor at the UK’s UEA, Phil Jones – who worked with Mann on the reconstruction – told climate-realist, Warwick Hughes, who had asked for details about his methodology that

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.

Mann and his team were refusing to explain how they achieved their result to people wishing to subject it to scrutiny – exactly what is supposed to happen in the scientific world, otherwise, it is not science. Mann was able to elevate his research by using his position as lead author. These are just two of the many reasons Mann was ‘attacked’ by the scientific and sceptical communities, and websites set up to examine his claims. Stewart, by not even mentioning this, does no justice to the debate. His omission is fairly straightforward bias.

For a full picture on the vast number of questions relating to his methodology generated by Mann’s graphic, visit Climate Audit where Steve McIntyre has documented his attempts to reconstruct Mann’s reconstruction. He also demonstrates that the other reconstructions presented by Stewart as a debunking of scepticism are not at all as independent from Mann as he suggests, nor are they compiled using substantially different methodology. For rebuttals to McIntyre, read Real Climate, ‘Tamino’s’ Open Mind (a misnoma, if ever there were one), and eli rabett (the cartoonish psuedonom of a commentator not brave enough to put his real name to frequently very childish arguments).

In 2001, the hockey stick alarmed the world. Today, it is widely regarded as a bit of an embarrassment. The 2007 IPCC (AR4) report’s chapter on paleoclimate reconstruction is far more circumspect.

On the evidence of the previous and four new reconstructions that reach back more than 1 kyr, it is likely [NB: “Likely” means greater than 66 percent] that the 20th century was the warmest in at least the past 1.3 kyr. Considering the recent instrumental and longer proxy evidence together, it is very likely that average NH temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were higher than for any other 50-year period in the last 500 years. Greater uncertainty associated with proxy-based temperature estimates for individual years means that it is more difficult to gauge the significance, or precedence, of the extreme warm years observed in the recent instrumental record, such as 1998 and 2005, in the context of the last millennium.

In other words, the hockey stick is not particularly significant. It does not ‘prove’ that today’s climate is warmer than ever before; nor are the findings of only marginal confidence given prominence. And here is the rub: Stewart overstates the importance of the sceptics’ case for a warmer MWP than present by saying that it would ‘prove’ to the world that anthropogenic climate change was false. Yet this is again a mischaracterisation, both of the range of sceptic’ argument, and the objections to Mann’s work. The challenge to the hockey stick concerned principally its undue prominence, and the lack of integrity of the IPCC process. The graphic was used, not as a device to further our understanding of the climate, and to build an effective response, but to serve as a vehicle for alarmism, and something that could be sold to the media as a conclusive, unchallengeable fact about humanitys influence on the climate.

The film continues to consider the argument in The Great Global Warming Swindle connecting the effect of solar flux on cosmic rays, and cloud formation. This was ‘debunked’, in spite of the strong statistical correlation until 1990, on the basis that the correlation ceases. But this correlation, ending as it does in 1990, must make for a good argument that temperatures prior to 1990 could be attributed to the sun. In other words, Stewart’s premise that a consensus, and a strong scientific argument both existed in the early 1990s was misconceived. At the very least, the question about the correlation between solar-cycle length and global temperature prior to 1990 has not been answered. Why did it end?

Stewart isn’t interested. From all this, he says, there is only one conclusion. Humans are responsible and emissions must be curbed:

There are only a tiny number of scientists who still question a human influence on climate. And yet climate scepticism hasn’t gone away. You’ll still see websites claiming that the world isn’t warming up, that it’s all down to the urban heat island. But that’s not true. You’ll still hear claims that there is proof that the Earth was hotter than during the medieval warm period. But that’s not true. And you’ll still hear people claiming that the sun somehow disproves global warming. But that’s not true either. So why is this stuff still around? The problem is there are a lot of people who don’t want global warming to be true. The fact is, I’m one of them. I wish there was no such thing as global warming, because taking action to prevent climate change is going to affect all our lives and mean giving up some of our freedom.

See what he did there? A seamless switch from the scientific to the political. Most scientists agree that humans have something to do with recent increases in global temperature, therefore we inevitably have to accept the politics of restraint. We all now have to change our lifestyles and give up our freedoms… because ‘most scientists say so’.

No argument is offered as to how Stewart knows that most scientists agree. As far as we are aware, no such poll has ever been taken. But more to the point, even if all scientists agreed, the way we live our lives, and the decision as to what liberties we ought to be entitled to are absolutely none of their business. Stewart clearly believes that an ‘ethical’ and political argument for action on climate change can be constructed purely on the basis of ‘scientific facts’. But how? And why should normal ethics and politics be suspended? Science may be able to shed light on the kind of future we might face, but it cannot tell us whether avoiding that kind of future altogether is better than another form of strategy. It cannot calculate the costs and benefits in human terms. And urgency is no substitute for legitimacy. This intellectual poverty is what drives objections to environmentalism. It is because demands for action to stop climate change use ‘facts’ in the same way that cavemen use clubs. They are blunt instruments of control, not careful arguments which persuade. To paraphrase Stewart, the problem is that there are a lot of people who NEED global warming to be true. Without it, they would be disorientated, and purposeless. As we say in our introduction, environmental concern is merely serving to provide direction for directionless politics.

Let’s get it straight – most sceptics are not doubting that humans have contributed to a warming trend. Indeed, Stewart had already interviewed Pat Michaels, who had made it quite clear that he agrees that the world is warming, and Fred Singer, who had stated that his gripe is not with the readings of thermometers. Stewart has in his possession the very facts he needs to understand that he has mischaracterised the debate, the arguments, and the motives behind objections to climate change alarmism.

It is the necessity of giving up freedoms, Stewart goes on to say, which has lead companies to seek ways to undermine the climate change argument.

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Of course. It’s all Bush’s fault.

And there’s a familiar argument in this claim that the ‘strategy’ of the sceptics was to create doubt… We’ve heard it before. If we look back over the film, we can see exactly the same argument being made here, as were made by Naomi Oreskes in her ‘Tobacco Strategy’ thesis: there were a small bunch who viciously and nastily attacked a bunch of nice scientists, and who cast doubt over well established scientific truths in order to control the media, and influence the public. Oh, and they’re Republicans. As we said of Oreskes thesis earlier in the year:

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.

Stewart’s film is no different. The actual arguments for ‘drastic and urgent action’ to mitigate climate change are paper thin, so in order to make the case, Stewart and Oreskes re-write history. In fact, Stewart had little to do with it. As the credits of the first episode reveal, Oreskes was involved with the writing of the film, and it can be no accident that the second episode bears such a resemblance to her mucky thesis.

Finally, although the film promised interviews with the sceptics, this amounted to no more than Stewart accosting various people in the lobby of the Manhatten conference, to, rather childishly, challenge them, rather than understand their position. This failure to understand what he is arguing against is particularly well demonstrated by this last section.

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Stewart has invented the idea that, since the whole debate began, sceptics have lost arguments to the scientists. But as the very footage he shows reveals, it is not the case that scepticism ever rested on the scientific argument. Of course some sceptics may have focussed on some scientific aspects of the discussion exclusively. But Stewart, like Oreskes, needs to make the case that scepticism is one idea, with one purpose, akin to an ideology, because setting up strawmen is the only way these two can challenge arguments they clearly do not understand. They falsely cast the debate as opposed sides, without any nuance of argument or position. They falsely casts sceptics as those who disagree with the science, whereas many sceptics raise questions about the equally questionable politics, ethics, and economics of the argument for action. They seem to be advocating action to mitigate climate change on the basis that a correlation between CO2 and global temperature is sufficient to make the political and moral case. And they are unreflective about their own political stance on the issue, appearing to believe that theirpolitical position is legitimised by the climate science.

As Stewart told the BBC in an interview for the press release announcing the film, he has a clear agenda, and it ain’t informing the public:

If society is to make any progress on effectively dealing with climate change at a regional or global level, what is imperative is that ordinary people help build a political climate at grass-roots level that accepts the problem exists and demands some serious actions by business and government. For me, that begins with people accepting that there is no hiding place left in the science – the overwhelming consensus of the vast body of scientists that study climate is that the trends we are seeing in the air, the oceans and in our ecosystems are entirely consistent with the theory of global warming, while the alternatives offered by sceptical scientists – even the much heralded role of the Sun – so far fail that test.

Blaming scientific uncertainty is now not an option to delay action. Sure, actions by individuals can make a difference, but real progress will only come when individuals come together with a strong, common voice to demand that rhetoric turns into regulation. And that’s where I see my role – in convincing ordinary folk that this is an issue that they should care about, not because it will affect them but, more insidiously, it will be their legacy to their kids and grandkids.

The same, self-aggrandising, alarmist nonsense can be found anywhere. And to find the arguments which debunk it, and are sceptical of it, you don’t have to seek out some dark, nasty, politically-motivated organisation. They can be found in the very words offered to us by non-sceptical climate scientists.

We’ve been citing Professor Mike Hulme (Tyndall and UEA) a lot recently. But his contributions to climate debates demonstrate perfectly the discrepancy between the shrill cries for action, such as those of Stewart, and what actually emerges from the scientific process, when those scientists aren’t engaged in political activism. Compare Hulme’s words to Stewart’s:

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Rewriting Slavery

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

Hmm.

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.

Who is Pachauri Calling 'Flat Earthers'?

A hat-tip to Anthony Watts, who points to an interview in the Chicago Tribune with head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri.

Q: What do you think about the small but vocal group of doubters still out there?

A: There is, even today, a Flat Earth Society that meets every year to say the Earth is flat. The science about climate change is very clear. There really is no room for doubt at this point.

Of course, no room for doubt = no room for science. But leaving aside Pachauri’s errors such as this, there is a bigger question about the way in which ‘science’ is used to make statements about the future of society.

We are creating conditions for the social structure to break down. If that happens, clearly there will be more conflicts. With coastal flooding, there could be hundreds of millions of environmental refugees.

The argument that Pachauri uses here is nothing more than environmental determinism; the idea that human history is shaped by its environmental circumstances.

There is no doubt that there is a degree to which the circumstances people find themselves in determine the outcome of their lives. We can take it as read that the human race evolved in circumstances which were beyond its control. But in today’s world, people’s lives are no longer dictated by their environments, not by virtue of environmental stasis, but because of our own abilities.

Society now thrives in a wide range of conditions, from the frozen arctic to the harsh deserts. Entire rivers have been diverted in order to irrigate fields, and serve new cities with water. Marshes have been drained, and low-lying areas raised. Cities have been constructed below sea level. Valleys have had dams built across them. But now, Pachauri claims that a mere few degrees change in temperature over the course of a century – the time it took us to develop the internal combustion engine, atomic energy, powered flight, cures for many diseases, to land men on the moon, the Internet… – will cause society to collapse.

Pachauri is simply wrong. Social structure has very little – and as we develop, less and less – to do with environmental conditions. Furthermore, social conditions are our defence against environmental conditions. For example, where there is industrial development, there is less vulnerability to the environment. Tsunamis, earthquakes and storms in the developing world kill thousands. Deaths from similar conditions in the developed world kill far, far fewer. This is a cold, hard, measurable, scientific fact.

That Pachauri gets things arse-about-face wouldn’t be so tragic if it didn’t threaten to undermine the very social structures he claims to wish to protect. In emphasising climate stability over industrial society’s influence over outcomes for people’s standard of living, he prioritises, wrongly, an anti-development agenda. This will leave more people more vulnerable to climate.

Pachauri is the flat earther. It is time he was exposed as such.

More Is Less in Bangladesh

Bangladesh landmass ‘is growing’, reports the BBC:

Satellite images of Bangladesh over the past 32 years show that the country is growing annually by about 20 square kilometres (12.5 square miles), said Maminul Haque Sarker of the Dhaka-based Centre for Environment and Geographic Information Services.

This was due, he said, to the billion tonnes of sediment that the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and 200 other rivers bring from the Himalayas each year before crossing Bangladesh […] in the next 50 years this could add up to the country gaining 1,000 square kilometres

But, according to IPCC lead author Atiq Rahman, the fact that Bangladesh is getting bigger is merely masking the fact that it’s actually getting smaller as a result of the ravages of global warming:

“The rate at which sediment is deposited and new land is created is much slower than the rate at which climate change and sea level rises are taking place,” he said.

Of course, the rate at which eggs fry is less than the rate at which birds sing. But, ultimately, Bangladesh is either growing or it isn’t.

The Ethics of 'the Ethics of Climate Change'

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

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

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

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

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


“… the sea level is rising”

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


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

But the Antarctic shows the opposite trend.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat People are Killing the Butterflies

Steve Connor, science editor at the Independent newspaper warns us that

Tropical insects rather than polar bears could be among the first species to become extinct as a result of global warming, a study has found. 

What does that even mean? Are the polar bears OK after all? Is the environmental movement looking for a new mascot for climate change? Is it out with the charismatic mega-fauna because of the environmental ethic that ‘small is beautiful’? But it’s nothing compared to the headline it appears under:

Insects ‘will be climate change’s first victims’ 

An image of a butterfly follows, with the caption…

Many tropical insect species, including butterflies, can only tolerate a narrow range of temperatures, and an average rise of 1C to 2C could be disastrous 

Contrast with the measured language of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article on which Connor reports, and which the journal has kindly made available for free:

Our analyses imply that, in the absence of ameliorating factors such as migration and adaptation, the greatest extinction risks from global warming may be in the tropics, where biological diversity is also greatest. 

This is not the first time the Independent has gone on about butterflies as the harbinger of doom. Back in March – a particularly cold March, as it happens – Environment Editor Michael McCarthy hit us with:

Last month, [climate change] produced its most remarkable image yet – a photograph, taken in Dorset, of a red admiral, an archetypal British summer butterfly, feeding on a snowdrop, an archetypal British winter flower. 

But as we pointed out, the red admiral is far tougher that McCarthy gives it credit for, occasionally making an appearance in Winter, and is certainly not unusual in Spring and Autumn. Yet again, the Independent is making claims about the vulnerability of species that aren’t consistent with the state of knowledge.

The BBC is no more level-headed about the research…

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 5.4C rise in tropical temperatures expected by 2100. 

5.4C expected by whom? Well, expected by the anonymous author of the BBC article, apparently. Certainly, the IPCC makes no specific prediction for temperature rise this century. And 5.4ºC is not mentioned in the PNAS study, nor in the accompanying press release. The only match we can find is in IPCC AR4 where it is the top-end prediction for SRES scenario A2 (Table SPM.3), the range of which is 2.0-5.4ºC. But why pick 5.4ºC? If you’re just looking for a big number to scare people with, then why not plump for the upper value for the A1 scenario (1.4-6.4°C)? Is this like buying the second cheapest bottle of wine in a restaurant to prove you are not a skinflint? Or like Josef Fritzl wondering why everyone hates him when he could have been so much more horrible? [EDIT: The BBC has now “corrected” this error.]

Call us pedantic if you like; but imagine the outcry had the BBC reported that global temperatures are expected to rise by only 1.4ºC by the end of the century (the second lowest low point among the four AR4 SRES scenarios). But then, of course, it’s not just journalists (and activists) who are happy to over-egg the ecopocalyptic pudding. When, for example, Bob May (erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former chief scientific advisor to the UK government) confidently asserted in the popular media that a global temperature of 2ºC will put 15-40% of all species at risk of extinction, it was on the basis of a single, worst-case study. He was no less unobjective when he announced that climate swindler du jour Martin Durkin was also some sort of whacko HIV/AIDS denialist. And then there are the science academies, who, while being suspicious of the industry move towards open access publishing, are happy to make papers of the the-world-is-screwed-and-we’re-all-going-to-die variety available to all and sundry for free. Which is what the US’s National Academy of Sciences have done with this paper. And last year the Royal Society did it, too, when they published a paper which they claimed proved once and for all that the sun has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. This wasn’t just any old paper; it was, in the words of the Royal Society itself, “the truth about global warming“. And for some strange reason, we are still expected to take these academies’ opinions on what we should do about climate change as the last word on truth and beauty – “respect the facts” as Bob May puts it.

Newspaper editors and headline writers could – possibly – be forgiven for not understanding quite how science works. It’s harder to see how science correspondents could. And it’s laughable that the science academies seem not to. Funnier is that scientists and science academies are only too happy to criticise journalists, newspapers and TV producers when they report the science ‘wrongly’ (and you can bet your house that none of them will be criticising the Independent or the BBC on this occasion). But what do they expect? What sort of example do they think are they setting?

As we keep saying, this is no conspiracy. It’s just that – as they’ve been trying to tell us for years – scientists are human, too. Being human and everything, scientists are as jittery about the future and unsure of their role in society as the rest of us. But just because it turns out that they are as anxious as the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to take the claims of environmentalists at face value, or any less reason to maintain objectivity. Just as global warming is convenient for local governments, directionless leaders and crisis politics, it is also convenient for scientists and science academies lacking raison d’être.

Science might never have been quite the objective producer of facts that we like to think it is. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t strive to be an objective seeker of facts. Because striving to be objective about the facts of the material universe is precisely what science is supposed to do. When it applies itself instead to arming political narratives with legitimacy and authority, it talks itself out of a job.