A Crisis of Faith in Crisis Politics

Two Popes, two statements, two apparent U-turns:

1. The Vatican declares that evolution by natural selection is not incompatible with its teachings and that Intelligent Design is a ‘cultural phenomenon’ rather than a scientific or theological one.

2. Dr Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre warns against climate catastrophism and appeals to scientists to rein in misleading climate change claims:

News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted.

One, however, is more of a U-turn than the other. The Vatican’s statement is not news. It has been making similar statements for the past decade or more. Likewise, Dr Pope is not the first influential climate scientist to criticise climate porn. For example, Professor Mike Hulme has been saying similar things for a couple of years now. What makes Dr Pope’s statement newsworthy, however, is that it represents a U-turn not only for Dr Pope, but for the MET office itself.

Much of Pope’s article is rather sensible. For example:

Recent headlines have proclaimed that Arctic summer sea ice has decreased so much in the past few years that it has reached a tipping point and will disappear very quickly. The truth is that there is little evidence to support this. Indeed, the record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer sea ice increasing again over the next few years.

It’s certainly encouraging to see a MET office spokesperson debunking talk of tipping points regarding summer Arctic ice melt. She’s talking about James Hansen, but we highlighted that same problem back in September, in response to comments from NSIDC senior scientist Mark Serreze.

He said:

We could very well be in that quick slide downwards in terms of passing a tipping point

We said:

Serreze neither explains what this tipping point might be, nor why his NSIDC data suggests we might be passing it. In this sense, ‘tipping point’ is used simply as a sciencey-sounding synonym for ’something terrible might happen’. And reporters don’t even think to ask him what on Earth he is talking about.

More sense from Pope:

Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of the science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.

Although she spoils it rather with her next sentence:

Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades.

No. She would be equally (un)justified if she said that both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are up for debate. Of course, it is true that climate change poses problems that must be confronted. Just as it is true that our understanding of the effects of climate change is rudimentary. It is not the case that overplaying and underplaying natural variations in weather both undermine one of those more than the other. Both do, however, undermine the ability of society to make plans informed by the best available evidence.

Anyway, others have noted how Pope’s comments sit uncomfortably with her own statements in the recent past about the effects of climate change, and we have ourselves flagged up the MET’s over-interpretation of data for dramatic effect.

The most amusing reaction comes from climate guru Joseph Romm, who goes a long way to doing our job for us. Referring to an article written by Pope in December for the Times, he writes:

Pope herself is the principal source of the major recent apocalyptic prediction made by climate scientists — ironically in a December article in the Guardian [sic], “Met Office warn of ‘catastrophic’ rise in temperature”

Well, quite. Romm falls out with Pope because, in his world, the apocalyptic claims she refers to are not actually apocalyptic, but statements of fact.

If Pope wants to criticise climate catastrophism, that’s just fine with us. We hope, however, that she appreciates the enormity of the job she has taken on. It’s all too easy to cherry pick a handful of silly statements made by a few over-enthusiastic scientists and desperate reporters. But the fact is that such language is at the very core of environmental politics. So, by way of assisting her in her project, here’s a few bigger fish for Pope to get her teeth into…

Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister:

We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points.

Mr Blair said the consequences for the planet of inaction were “literally disastrous”. “This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime,” he said. Investment now will pay us back many times in the future, not just environmentally but economically as well.”

We are headed toward catastrophic tipping points in our climate unless we act

Gordon Brown, UK Prime Minister:

So the new settlement also requires another great and historic endeavour to end the dictatorship of oil and to avert catastrophic climate change

David Cameron – Leader of the Conservative Opposition:

the threat of imminent, irreversible, and catastrophic change to the climate of our planet should prompt us to challenge any perceived consensus on green growth

If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Lord Professor Sir Nicholas Stern:

The possibility of avoiding a global catastrophe is “already almost out of reach”, Sir Nicholas Stern’s long-awaited report on climate change will warn today.

President Barack Obama:

Today we’re seeing that climate change is about more than a few unseasonably mild winters or hot summers. It’s about the chain of natural catastrophes and devastating weather patterns that global warming is beginning to set off around the world.. the frequency and intensity of which are breaking records thousands of years old.

John Gloster, Met Office Research Scientist:

The arrival of Bluetongue disease in the UK in recent years is evidence that changing climate is already impacting animal health. The Met Office, working with other interested parties, is taking the lead in providing the advice and solutions government, veterinary experts and farmers will need to mitigate against the effects of climate change on animal and plant health in the future.

Environmentalism: "frustrated, angry and confused"

Over at the Daily Kos, and European Tribune, blogger ‘Johnnyrook’ attempts to connect ‘denialism’ with an ideology. The piece itself is an answer to a blog post elsewhere by Joseph Romm, The denialists are winning, especially with the GOP. David Roberts tried this approach on the Nation blog back in February:

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

We replied that environmentalism used ‘science’ as a fig leaf. Environmentalism is an ideological position, whereas scepticism encompasses a range of objections to it, some of which are, in fact, perfectly valid on scientific grounds.

What Johnnyrook writes in Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology is, frankly, unmitigated and unimportant crap. But it does offer some insight into the ‘thought processes’ of grass-roots Environmentalism. Johnnyrook whines that

Anyone who has tried to discuss Climaticide with a climate change denialist knows just how frustrating it can be. No matter how well informed you are, no matter how many peer-reviewed studies you cite, or how many times you point out the overwhelming agreement based on the evidence that exists among climate scientists that global warming is real and is principally caused by human fossil fuel use, you will get no where. Your adversary will deny the facts, cherry pick the scientific evidence for bits of data that, taken out of context, support his/her denialist view, or drag out long-debunked counter-arguments in the hope that they are unfamiliar to you and that you will not be able to refute them. If you succeed in countering all of his arguments he will most likely reword them and start all over again. 

Climaticide? Climaticide? Is it even possible to kill a climate? But moving on, Johnnyrook clearly believes himself to be in possession of a faultless argument. So it must be the rest of the world that’s wrong. Who said environmentalism was emotional, arrogant, and infantile?

After a couple of hours of this, you end up frustrated, angry and confused. You give up and storm off vowing to study and learn even more so that next time you will be better prepared and able to convince the denialist of the error of his/her ways. 

Our advice to little Johnny is that perhaps his tantrums would be easier to manage if he reflected on why his arguments aren’t convincing, rather than sought to find other reasons to explain his failure. But Johnny’s tantrums are characteristic of the environmental movement as a whole – a movement that is unable to take responsibility for its own failures.

No, the true climate change denialist is an ideologue. Understanding this fact is key to comprehending the denialist mentality and to knowing how to respond to denialist arguments. Ideologues are adherents of closed, ideological systems, in which all problems are ultimately attributed to a single cause: original sin (Christianity), the accumulation of private property (Communism), restrictions imposed on a superior race by inferior ones (Fascism), the destruction of “freedom” by “Big Government” (Conservative/Libertarian).  

And here Johnny gives us some insight into why he fails to make convincing political arguments. First, he doesn’t recognise his own perspective as ideological, and that it is, in his own terms, about a ‘single cause’. Perhaps we can help him – spell it out for him, in fact – with the aid of some emphasis to illustrate our point:

ENVIRONMENTalism

Environmentalists see society as intrinsically, fundamentally, inextricably linked to ‘nature’ – manifested as the ‘environment’. To the Environmentalist, all moral actions are transmitted through the biosphere. Your wealth, relative to another’s poverty is not seen in terms of the political, sociological, or historical background to your circumstances and those of your counterparts. It is instead seen in terms of biological and geological processes. You buy a big car, and the consequence is that it rains too much/doesn’t rain at all on the poor, starving child in Africa. So, instead of addressing the poverty of the poor child through developing a critique of the socio-political relations throughout the world in order that we might begin to help, the Environmentalist just wants you to withdraw from your evil lifestyle. This moral framework is unchallengeable, according to the Environmentalist, because the causal chain between your consumer choice and the plight of the child in can be explained in ‘scientific’ rather than social terms; the car, the combustion, the CO2, the greenhouse effect, the warming, the climate change, the drought. (Forget any sense of proportion between these steps).

This perspective takes poverty as a given. Indeed, it needs poverty. Without poverty to designate a moral absolute, Environmentalism’s moral calculations would cease to have meaning. Its objectives are, therefore, not to abolish poverty, but to make it ‘less bad’. And, of course, the abolishment of poverty is, according to Johnny’s maxim, ‘ideological’. Thus, we are prevented from approaching the problem of poverty – or even the effects of climate change – through politics. In other words, poverty is not seen as a political problem. After all, poverty is natural. Just ask Malthus.

Second, Johnny gives us a particularly ignorant description of ideologies. Christianity is all about ‘original sin’, apparently. But can we comfortably say that Christianity is an ideology? It may well offer us an account of creation, but not necessarily to the exclusion of other ideological ideas. Can a Christian not be committed to free trade, on the one hand, or the abolition of private property on the other? There are interesting moral arguments for both. But why should Jesus be bothered, either way? And isn’t that a problem for Christians, rather than political scientists? Communism, apparently, blames all problems on the accumulation of private property. Actually, Marx’s contention was that the accumulation of private property is necessary to create a working class in an industrial – rather than feudal – society. In this sense, the accumulation begins to solve many of the problems of oppression and inequality. And Johnny is very much mistaken with his conception of Fascism, which he confuses with nazism. Nazism is indeed a racialised form of Fascism. But Fascism itself isn’t a necessarily a racist ideology, and there is no consensus amongst historians about how fascism can be characterised; it is an issue of much debate, somewhat clouded by the fact that, at the time of fascism and Nazism, ideas about race such as eugenics were mainstream and orthodox – dare we say, the subject of a consensus. Finally, Johnny confuses libertarianism with conservatism. Yet conservatism, as the name suggests, seeks to use the state to preserve social orders, traditions and cultures, while libertarianism is a broader term, in that a libertarian would generally object to the state’s intervention in such matters. Johnny’s grasp on political ideologies is weak. No wonder then, that he fails to recognise
his own.

He continues, oblivious,

Once the initial conclusion is reached (often after a long, complicated chain of deductive reasoning–Marx’s Capital, the writings of Ayn Rand, etc.) that factor X is the source of all of society’s ills, all debate outside the ideology’s framework ends.

Hmm. Hasn’t Johnny opened his story by telling us that carbon is the source of society’s ills?

One may deduce new positions from the ideology’s fundamental principles, but the fundamental principles can not be questioned because such questioning might undermine the entire ideological system and the psychological security that it provides, leaving the true believer in that most urgently to be avoided of states: UNCERTAINTY. Ideology is thus, inevitably, by it’s very nature, anti-empirical. 

We repeat:

ENVIRONMENTalism

Moreover, is it not precisely uncertainty that blights the environmental movement? Isn’t it the environmental movement that needs to tell us that ‘the science is in’? Wasn’t it Johnny who was, just a few paragraphs ago, evincing his own sheer and absolute rightness? Isn’t the entire momentum of the environmental movement predicated on a ‘scientific consensus’?

Johnny borrows from Naomi Oreskes’ critique of the “tobacco strategy”, which we discuss – at some length – here. Oreskes’ thesis is that doubt has been manufactured against the scientific case that smoking causes cancer and that global warming is caused by anthropogenic CO2, out of an ideological conviction. This forgets two things:

1. That, whatever the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer is, and whatever the evidence that humans are influencing the climate is, our response to that evidence is necessarily political. Only a lack of response – indifference – is apolitical. In the case of smoking, the possible political responses to such information are many: we could put out the information that smoking causes cancer; we could restrict the sale of tobacco; we could ban it altogether; or we could even decide that we should all smoke more and die horribly. But all options are political.

2. That any objection to a political argument in favour of a course of action, founded on a scientific case, will necessarily ‘doubt’ that the scientific evidence is sufficient to warrant the political action to which one objects. To point that out is to state the obvious.

Johnny’s uncertainty and Oreskes’ ‘tobacco strategy’ hypotheses are meaningless. They say no more than “objectors doubt the proposition”. But Oreskes and Johnny have convinced themselves that scientific evidence exists in some separate, apolitical space, from where it can make scientifically sound political arguments; they hide their political ideology behind their scientific fig leaves.

He continues with another mischaracterisation…

The Soviets understood this way of thinking perfectly because Marxism too is an ideology, only in Marxism the great enemy is not the State but private capital. 

Actually, the state is the ‘enemy’ in Marxism. For Marx, communist society is a stateless society, and the state is the apparatus of the bourgeoisie; it maintains the conditions in which the working classes are oppressed. Marx explicitly seeks the abolition of the state. Johnny is completely wrong.

He goes on to argue that it is pointless to argue with people who hold an ‘ideological’ objection to climate change alarmism, because ‘facts’ are not important to them. He offers a psychological account of his political opponents:

ideologues find psychological safety from an uncertain world in the certainties of their ideology. What you think of as an argument about global warming, they perceive as an attack on their entire world view. And they’re right of course, even though it’s not your intention. 

We have seen attempts to profile the psychology of ‘deniers’ before. Here, for example.

What is interesting here is that Johnny, who, as we can see, fails to recognise his own ideology as an ideology, now makes an attack against all ideology – against all political perspectives. Ideology is now a symptom of a pathology, in much the same way that religion is seen as a pathology by Richard Dawkins et al; it is a comforting delusion, with a biological basis. This scientistic nihilism allows Johnny to diminish his opposition, rather than confront them. Isn’t this what the Nazi’s do, according to Johnny’s account of ideology, to other races? Aren’t other races, by virtue of this pathology, not only morally and intellectually inferior, but biologically inferior too? Johnny has just diminished his opponents to sub-humans, who do not have the right to engage in political discussion or to raise political objections. Disagree with Johnny and you are persona non grata. Johnny isn’t even capable of identifying the opposition – of which he is evidently utterly ignorant – to his ideas. He doesn’t need to know what ideas in an ideology might commit an ‘ideologue’ to an objection to Environmentalism, and it would seem that he doesn’t care. All he can see is that convictions to ideas appear to stand in the way of his own beliefs.

Johnny’s claim to empiricism belies his blatant anti-intellectualism. He too wants ‘facts’ but only in the sense that a caveman wants a club. He says that “one should generally ignore the denialists and concentrate on persuading the open minded”. But anyone who is open-minded has to agree with him, or they are suddenly closed-minded. Johnny finishes:

For those of us in the reality-based community, understanding the role that conservative/libertarian ideology plays in determining Climaticide denialist behavior, whether sincere or simulated, can be very useful in making sense of the denialist position, a position which, ultimately, is rooted not in facts and critical thinking, but in political and psychological needs. 

For Johnny to tell us that ‘denialists’ are blinded by ideology seems as reasonable as, say, somebody who wants to completely reorganise society around a principle of, ohh, let’s say, ‘harmony with nature’, telling us that they are against reorganising society around a particular principle. Of course Johnny has an ideology – Environmentalism. And of course he is an ‘ideologue’. Why then, does Johnny protest so much about ideology?

Johnny’s inability to reflect on his own ideology, his poor grasp of politics and his disregard for others all go some way to explaining his frustration, anger, and confusion. This is a symptom of the environmental movement. We have written before about the many different ways that Environmentalists have tried to diminish their opponents by questioning their psychology and moral character, and by trying to locate a conspiracy – in every way, in fact, other than through careful, honest, political argument. Johnny’s emotions characterise the shrill, impatient, self importance of the environmental movement, which prefers trantrums to debate, and panic and alarmism to convincing arguments. It prizes emotion over intellectual engagement. Environmentalism isn’t so much a cause to fight for, than a symptom of belonging to nothing. It is, nonetheless, an ideology – one that needs to be challenged.

Do Environmentalists Want to Save the Planet or What?

They like their weird analogies at Gristmill. The latest comes from scientist and Green oracle Joseph Romm, in an introduction to a tirade about geo-engineering by guest poster Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project:

Geo-engineering is to mitigation as chemotherapy is to diet and exercise 

Weird. Because chemotherapy is rather more useful than diet and exercise when it comes to, say, curing someone of cancer. It’s even weirder for the fact that Gristmill’s last weird analogy, by Romm’s fellow scientist and Green oracle Andrew Dessler, likened the planet to a sick child in need of expert medical advice. Romm, it seems, would rather turn Dessler’s sick child over to some TV nutritionist to get them jogging and eating more broccoli.

The thrust of Becker’s piece is that the planet might be screwed, but that efforts to mitigate global warming through geo-engineering – giant mirrors in space, the injection of aerosols into the atmosphere, carbon sequestration, seeding oceans with iron oxide, and that sort of thing – are unethical and impractical.

Intergenerational ethics argue against us leaving massive, intractable problems for future generations, forcing them to deal in perpetuity with nuclear waste, carbon sequestration sites, and geo-engineering systems – all subject to human error and to failures that would be deadly. 

Apparently, however, leaving future generations without infrastructure and energy supplies to withstand the ravages of future climate, is perfectly acceptable. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any human endeavour – apart from jogging and eating broccoli, perhaps – that would meet Becker’s ethical criteria. Ultimately Becker’s is an argument against progress, because pretty much all human activity is geo-engineering. As William M. Briggs puts it, “It is trivially true that man, and every other organism, influences his environment, and hence his climate.” And as Becker continues, his antipathy towards humanity’s efforts to improve its lot shines through:

Think of dams and levees designed to control rivers so that people can live in natural floodplains – sometimes with disastrous results ... Geo-engineering is born of the dangerous conceit that human engineering is superior to nature’s engineering … Lacking regard for natural systems, we have upset them … we lack humility. 

The Greens’ resistance to geo-engineering sits very uncomfortably with its message that the planet is screwed and we’re all going to die. It suggests that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations. It suggests that they don’t actually believe their own press releases, and that they know the situation is not as dire as they would like the rest of us to think it is. And that Environmentalists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces – “we’ll save the planet our way or not at all.” It suggests that Environmentalists regard science and engineering as the cause of problems, and not the solution.

Even if [geo-engineering] were able to stabilize climate change – which is doubtful … We still would be addicted to imported oil, still would be subsidizing terrorism with our gas dollars, still would suffer the cost and supply traumas that are inevitable with finite resources, still would send our children off to die in resource wars, still would pollute the air and cause respiratory problems for our children, and still would wipe out species, many of them beneficial to us, as we invade their habitat. 

As if reducing CO2 emissions would stabilise the climate. The weather will continue to pick off those who are not buffered against it regardless of whether climate change predictions are realised or not. As if a stable climate would prevent resource wars or global terrorism. If anything creates resource shortages, Environmentalism does. Indeed, by drawing on the dangers of terrorism to justify environmental politics, Becker merely demonstrates how Environmentalism and the War on Terror are united in their deployment of the Politics of Fear.

There are good reasons to think that geo-engineering cannot stabilise the climate either. Control of the climate might well be too much to ask of a strategy that manipulates a single variable in a hugely complex system. And yet the tweaking of a single variable – CO2 emissions – is precisely what the Greens are demanding.

Contrary to Romm’s analogy, the Greens’ efforts to save the planet are far more like chemotherapy than diet and exercise. After all, it is the Greens who liken humanity to a plague, virus or a cancer infecting planet Earth. And their insistence that we batten down the hatches, tread lightly on the Earth, ration our energy and bow to the superiority of Mother Nature would leave us even more vulnerable to her whims than we are already.

Engineering fixes for global warming are, says Becker, “born of desperation”. Quite possibly. But what he should be asking himself is who created the climate of desperation in the first place.