We Are Armed Only With Rumour, Hyperbole And Friends In High Places

The Climate Camp protestors have been complaining about the way they have been treated by the police. Again. Caroline Lucas explains, on commentisrubbish,

Everyone who enters the site is being searched. Police officers are taking anything away that “could be used for illegal activity”, with efforts being made to strip protesters of such hardcore weapons of choice as bits of carpet, biodegradable soap and toilet paper. In the absence of any serious threat, the police clearly found it necessary to justify their presence with an unprovoked attack on personal hygiene.

As we said recently, the police are complicit in the camp’s PR. Heavy handedness just appears to lend the protest some drama, and sympathy for the silly protest. Worse still, it makes the protestors look like they are on the opposing side to the Government, when in fact, they have a lot in common.

But further North from the camp, near the site of the 2006 Climate Camp, another group of protestors in June halted a train bound for the Drax power plant, [video], attached ropes from the train to a bridge, and emptied coal from the train onto adjacent tracks.

It is hardly a surprise that the police therefore take the threat a little bit more seriously than the likes of Lucas claim it warrants. Indeed, the camp’s organisers boast of their intention to cause problems for the rest of the country:

On Saturday August 9th, the climate camp will go beyond talk and culminate in a spectacular mass action to shut down Kingsnorth. Permanently!

How can the police not take seriously the open threat made by the protestors – clearly no strangers to dangerous acts of sabotage – to sabotage an installation that serves hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals with power? We take very seriously the right of the camp to protest, and even to get up people’s noses by inconveniencing them. That is the stuff of democracy, after all. But you can’t expect the police to treat you all nice and fluffy while you are issuing threats that they are duty-bound to prevent you from carrying out.

The small group of self-important protestors have convinced themselves that they are beyond any kind of reproach, and are faultless. Reason does not apply to them. They have Gaia on their side.

Yet their arguments are too easily defeated. Last Friday, just eight Climate Camp protestors chained themselves to the gates of argibusiness giant, Cargill, on the basis that they are ‘profiting from hunger’ during global food price rises. This is simply crazy. The environmental movement has long campaigned for HIGHER food prices, arguing that industrial agriculture and distribution, in its search for lower prices and efficiencies is bad for the environment. If Cargill are profiting from higher prices, it is thanks to Environmentalism, as James Heartfield put it in Spiked recently:

For more than 20 years now, both the US and the European Union have pursued policies designed to reduce food output. They have introduced policies that reward farmers for retiring land from production (such as the EU’s set-aside and wilderness schemes). At the same time, the United Nations has used its aid programmes to penalise African farmers who try to increase yields with modern fertilisers or mechanisation. […] Just when it suited large-scale agriculture to wind down output to protect prices, the environmentalists were on hand to support land retirement schemes. Farmers, according to Britain’s Countryside Agency, would no longer farm, but become stewards of the countryside.

The leitmotif of the environmental movement is ‘the science says’. The camp’s slogan last year was ‘We are armed… only with peer-reviewed science’ . As we have said before, science is Environmentalism’s fig leaf. Behind the idea that ‘the science’ has promised catastrophe is the shameful illogic, unreason and plain untruths that Environmentalists don’t want us to see.

Writing in the Guardian, for example, Climate Camp protesters Ellen Potts, Oli Rodker, Johnathan Stevensen, Paul Morozzo and Mel Evans specify just how long all that ‘peer-reviewed science’ tells we have to save the planet:

Scientists tell us that from this week we have just 100 months to solve climate change.

Which scientists would that be then? Well, it seems it would be the Green New Deal Group, which comprises Larry Elliott (Economics Editor of the Guardian), Colin Hines (Co-Director of Finance for the Future; former head of Greenpeace International’s Economics Unit), Tony Juniper (former Director of Friends of the Earth), Jeremy Leggett (founder and Chairman of Solarcentury and SolarAid), Caroline Lucas (Green Party MEP), Richard Murphy (Co-Director of Finance for the Future and Director, Tax Research LLP), Ann Pettifor (former head of the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign, Campaign Director of Operation Noah), Charles Secrett (Advisor on Sustainable Development; former Director of Friends of the Earth) and Andrew Simms (Policy Director, the new economics foundation).

Spot the scientists, anyone?

Slightly more sobre – surprisingly – is the Camp’s very own ‘climate science’ page. It doesn’t talk of ‘just 100 weeks to save the planet’, but it does talk of 4°C temperature rise by 2100, giving rise to

reduced crop yields in the tropics, sea level rises and increases in flooding, more extreme weather events and at least a third of all species destined for extinction

These are, of course, factoids leeched from IPCC reports, and give the upper ranges of projections as predictions, and cite, third hand, worst-case scenarios from single-studies of very small sample groups taken from highly vulnerable species. There is, as yet, no clear evidence of ‘more extreme weather events’.

The reason for the camp’s relatively sobre – albeit still rather shrill – presentation of the ‘science’ might have something to do with its being written by a scientist.

Dr Simon L. Lewis, Earth & Biosphere Institute, School of Geography, University of Leeds. The author is a specialist on the interactions of tropical forests and climate change and a member of the Royal Society’s Climate Change Advisory Group. All the scientific information included here appears in the IPCC Fourth Assesment Reports, available at www.ipcc.ch

Climate Camp must be over the moon at having Lewis on board to write the sciencey bits. Unfortunately for them, however, what is striking is that the actions of the Climate Camp protesters is not justifiable on the basis of the Lewis’s summary. Which is why in interviews and letters to the Guardian, the protesters have to resort to the language of catastrophe.

Lewis’s thoughts on the matter of catastrophe, published on the Royal Society’s website are even more circumspect:

Are we heading for catastrophe? Possibly. It is currently impossible to make robust predictions concerning how future climatic changes will interact with social factors and non-climatic environmental problems in an increasingly globalised world, but it is straightforward to conceive of plausible and socially explosive scenarios (e.g. mixing a future economic recession and geopolitical tensions over resources, with extreme weather events causing a a key crop failure and resulting mass human migrations could overload political institutions). However, regarding climate change per se, it is physically possible to avoid the worst of climate change depending upon political choices now.

Nonetheless, we see here less climate science, and more speculation that is far closer to social science. And it gets worse:

The basic solution to climate change is obvious but rarely articulated forcefully: most fossil carbon must not get into the atmosphere. Currently the only proven way to do this is to leave most fossil fuels in the ground. That is no new oil fields, no new coal mines. But such apparently drastic measures are not on the mainstream agenda. Why? In my view this is because individuals, governments and companies all operate within a socio-economic system, capitalism, which, whether we like it or not, means it is difficult not to abide by the rules of this system.

This isn’t even social science – it’s political ideology. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with holding anti-capitalist views. Capitalism – like social science, and like climate science – needs to be challenged. But it’s clear that the boundaries between Lewis’s study of forests and his very shallow and fragile critique of capitalism are not as solid as they might be. If Lewis were a post-doctoral researcher specialising in tropical forest ecology who happened to be an anti-capitalist, that would be one thing. But instead, as is true of political discussions today, ‘science’ is the language in which ethical and political arguments are being made. In other words, Lewis, and the anti-capitalist environmental movement, cannot challenge capitalism in human, political, or on principled terms. If you aren’t sure about why that is wrong, consider what might be wrong with an argument attempting to ‘prove’ that theft and murder are wrong using Newtons laws of thermodynamics.

Writing on Commentisrubbish to explain the purpose of the camp, Lewis once again conflates science and politics:

A new high point of opposition starts this weekend as the Camp for Climate Action embarks on an eight-day protest to press the government and E.ON to abandon the scheme. This is no fringe issue: they will be taking action to stop a proposal potentially so destructive that increasing numbers of scientists are speaking out against it […]

The Climate Camp is creating space for serious debate about the kind of world we want to live in. More than that, the campers give shape to a force that can perhaps override the profits-now catastrophe-later logic of the government and E.ON: they form a broad-based movement of people committed to a socially just transition to a low-carbon society. I certainly don’t want to live in E.ON’s world, where business as usual trumps avoiding dangerous climate change. So I’ll be joining the campers in Kent. Anyone else with concerns about the future should do the same.

But he’s a scientist. So it must be true. Also no stranger to the language of catastrophe is Sir Martin “Our Final Century” Rees, president of the Royal Society, which funds Lewis’ research. Who said recently,

“Our main concerns are that coal fired powered stations are worse in terms of CO2 production even than oil or gas fired power stations.
“It would symbolically be very unfortunate if the UK were to approve a coal fired power station without imposing very strict requirements that some technology should be adopted that would allow it to capture the carbon dioxide it emits.”

So what have Rees and Lewis got to do with sabotage, police-brutality, and silly protests in Kent?

Quite a lot. We have described before the curious symbiosis between the Royal Society and activists such as Mark Lynas. What it reveals is that the establishment generates anxiety about the future, and are key to equipping the protestors with their arguments. The establishment is sympathetic to the protestors aims, as witnessed by the raft of environmental legislation on the cards and already in place. The establishment is involved in heavy policing of the protest. And the establishment is responsible for publicising the protest. This is not grass-roots activists, protesting about the state of things. This is anxiety within the establishment, expressing itself downwards. This process begins in the minds of those at the top, unsure of their roles, and of the future. It finds its way to a tiny number of individuals, who make a big noise and interesting pictures, which in turn creates the idea that this absurd protest has a point. But in truth, the entire spectacle owes itself to nothing more than the fact that Chicken Littles are running the roost, and that they depend on those prepared to flap about to make their positions more tenable, and legitimate.

The love-in between Climate Camp and the Royal Society is also evident in the protestors’ Guardian Letter:

The thought of going to prison even for a short period is daunting, but we cannot accept the logic of bail conditions that stop us attending a legal event at which Royal Society professors mix with families.

And which aims to shut down illegally a power station, by the way.

When the likes of Martin Durkin are deemed by the Royal Society to deviate from ‘the science’ of climate change, he is subject to the full wrath of the Royal Society. And yet it stands by as climate protesters and scientists take liberties with the truth and pass off opinion as science while hiding behind the Society’s very authority.

What the Royal Society ought to be doing – rather than running around like headless chickens – is providing sobre reflection, and scientific rationalism. It does exist, amongst the clucking. Take for example, the words of Carl Wunsch

…it is very difficult to separate human induced change from natural change, certainly not with the confidence we all seek. In these circumstances, it is essential to remember that the inability to prove human-induced change is not the same thing as a demonstration of its absence. It is probably true that most scientists would assign a very high probability that human-induced change is already strongly present in the climate system, while at the same time agreeing that clear-cut proof is not now available and may not be available for a long-time to come, if ever. Public policy has to be made on the basis of probabilities, not firm proof.

… and the words of Lewis in the same section of the RS website:

It is currently impossible to make robust predictions concerning how future climatic changes will interact with social factors and non-climatic environmental problems in an increasingly globalised world, but it is straightforward to conceive of plausible and socially explosive scenarios (e.g. mixing a future economic recession and geopolitical tensions over resources, with extreme weather events causing a a key crop failure and resulting mass human migrations could overload political institutions).

We can see firstly that there is no claim to certainty, or the science being ‘in’ on behalf of [ scientists, even those who make public, and very shrill statements about the need for action. Second, we can see that scientific arguments that we should act to mitigate climate change are founded on the precautionary principle – a controversial way of determining the best course of action in the face of unquantified risk. Third, what determines our vulnerability to climate is what Lewis refers to as ‘social factors’, therefore, concentration on the social factors would seem to be far more prudant than making attempts to control the weather. Unfortunately, though, he only considers ways in which we are vulnerable to climate, rather than resistant to it, and so concludes that we must act to change the weather. Fourth, then, climate change, given the right ‘social factors’ might not be a problem. But Lewis’s desire that we aim for changing the weather dimishes the ‘social factors’ which relate to our ability to resist the effects of climate. Fifth, it shows that the Royal Society and its associates are aware that social factors are more important than climatic ones, and yet they insist on alarming the public with terrifying stories and innuendo about those who dare to challenge it.

Perhaps the Royal Society simply doesn’t understand its role here. It too has become caught up in the political process, and its members seem to be as confused about what is politics and what is science as the circus-freak protestors. It too makes the mistake of believing that science can answer political questions about the future. It runs with it, because to say ‘we don’t really know’ would be to undermine its own position at a time when people – particularly the rest of the establishment – are turning to science for answers because politics isn’t providing them. The result is a loss of faith in both politics and science.

The AGW Debate Descends to 'Science'

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a statement last month, outlining its position on global warming…

The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. 

The AGU does not explain what a “balanced” climate is supposed to be, nor do they offer any explanation as to what a “natural rate of change” is. This is, of course, because neither statement is scientific. The idea that the climate is “balanced” is an assumption, but with almost mystical significance, as is the idea that there are “natural” and “unnatural” rates of change.

Andy Revkin ran a post about the statement on the New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, the responses to which constitute an epic online battle between some high-profile sceptics and warmers. (The link follows, but BE WARNED: the conversation is a gigantic 1050+ posts long, and it is likely to cause your browser some problems. HERE. )

Environmentalism’s public enemy #2, Marc Morano, raised the point that the statement cannot be representative of the organisation’s 45,000+ membership. This then led to a comment from Raymond T. Pierrehubert, a member of the climate modelling blog team, Real Climate. (A fine example of newspeak, that climate modellers call themselves ‘Real’ Climate”).

In response to Mr. Morano, I’ll echo one of the other commenters in pointing out that AGU is a democracy, and the officers are elected by vote of the entire membership. If any significant part of the leadership were notably out of tune with the membership, they would be voted out of office pretty swiftly, or would never have risen to the posts they have. To deny the significance of this statement on the grounds that it is a product of the council is like denying the legitimacy of US law because we have a representative democracy. 

It emerged during the conversation that the AGU statement was in fact written by a committee, appointed by the AGU’s council, agreed ‘unanimously’ by the elected council after a seven-month process. That’s less than a paragraph every two months, yet it possesses zero explanatory power. No science. It could have been written by any old eco-warrior. It is a political statement.

It is striking that the truth of the statement was defended on the basis of the AGU’s democratic organisational structure, as though material facts can be determined in this way. Voting is a test of mandate, not a test of truth. The AGU leadership only needs to demonstrate legitimacy to its membership in a small way. You wouldn’t expect earth scientists to divide themselves on political matters, as though, for example, plate tectonics was a “left wing” theory of geography, and the nitrogen cycle a piece of neoliberal political philosophy. Earth science is about studying the material world, and it seems hard to imagine why differences of political ideology should split that study. However, the last paragraph of the statement says,

With climate change, as with ozone depletion, the human footprint on Earth is apparent. The cause of disruptive climate change, unlike ozone depletion, is tied to energy use and runs through modern society. Solutions will necessarily involve all aspects of society. Mitigation strategies and adaptation responses will call for collaborations across science, technology, industry, and government. Members of the AGU, as part of the scientific community, collectively have special responsibilities: to pursue research needed to understand it; to educate the public on the causes, risks, and hazards; and to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

The statement asks for the world to put earth scientists at the centre of a political process involving “all aspects of society”. Whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to admire their political ambition. The AGU statement attributes change to humans, and takes the unscientific view that change will spell disaster for human civilisation, unless, of course, we surrender sovereignty to earth scientists because,

Members of the AGU … have special responsibilities … to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

If making statements such as “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming” is “communicating clearly and objectively”, then god help us. Such alarmist and unscientific language give all of us good reason to challenge statements like this. Which is unfortunately what didn’t happen, back at the NYT blog.

The conversation did not answer any problems with the AGU’s statement about the science (what is a “balanced climate”, etc) and nor did it answer the political questions raised by such politicisation of science. Instead, it avoided both by descending into wranglings of the eternal “it is happening”/”it isn’t happening” variety, with increasingly bitter accusations being hurled at and by either side. This seems to be how any discussion about climate change ends up. It resorts to “science”. But it is science that has been neutered. It is not science with explanatory power, it is science which is used to legitimise a course of action. The logic appears to be that if it is, once and for all, comprehensively proven that humans had influenced a change in the climate, the rest of the argument – that we put earth science at the heart of our political process – follows from it. But even showing that climate change “is happening”, doesn’t explain a “balance” or “stable” climate. As it happens, sceptics and warmers do find plenty of science to argue about – which is a good thing. Perhaps if climate scientists didn’t put their names to statements which appeal to “balance” and “natural” rates of change, those arguments would be harder for the sceptics to have. You don’t actually need to be a climate scientist to know that it’s bullshit.

Political arguments about the way to respond to climate change get deferred to scientific arguments. This takes the form of “the science is settled, and anyone who doubts it has a political agenda” followed by “it is happening” versus “it isn’t happening”. If the conversation at the NYT blog was just a battle of received wisdoms of the kind you can find all over the web, then it would not be significant. But the blog was populated by many of the “qualified scientists” that we’re being asked to store so much faith in, and who posted to the blog to register their support of the AGU statement. These were no amateurs. Warmers ought to realise that, although they may not believe themselves to be arguing from an ideological position, what they are arguing for is deeply ideological; they want to reorganise society around a new system of values. No amount of science and fear mongering legitimises that intention.

If you challenge politicians or public figures on climate policy you will hear the answer that it is the view of the majority of scientists. We have pointed out many times before that public statements on climate rarely match the reality of what has been said by the IPCC, even when it’s high-profile scientists (such as Lord Ma
y
, or Lord Rees), not politicians, who are doing the doom-saying. They ought to be answering questions about what kind of world that would be. Even a world dominated by climate-scientists-as-politicians would not have a “stable” or “balanced” climate, nor will that world be any better informed as to what a stable or balanced climate actually is.

Is Atheism Just Another Fundamentalism?

That’s the title of a debate on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Climate-Resistace editor Stuart was one of the speakers, with John Gray, Mark Vernon and Ron Ferguson. His talk went a bit like this…

Just so you know… I don’t believe in God. And I think science is a Good Thing. Science is one of the many fine products of the Enlightenment. It is the best way of exploring the material Universe we have. And it has transformed human lives for the better.

So I am not about to say that Atheism in general, and science in particular, is just another fundamentalism.

I will say, however, that certain atheists and scientists are becoming increasingly fundamentalist.

More specifically, I’d argue that while conventional religions are declining – at least in Europe – science is increasingly being used by certain groups – including sections of the scientific establishment itself – who are seeking to impose their own morality on the rest of us and to justify intolerance towards dissenting voices. And that this flies in the face of the very Enlightenment values from which science arose. And that this serves to close down healthy scientific and political debate, and, ultimately, hampers human progress.

I’d suggest that we have seen some fine examples of secular fundamentalism in the news this week. Anyone who has seen any coverage of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow will have seen the huge banner at the head of the procession: “We are armed … only with peer reviewed science.”

Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever put it more explicitly: “It’s not us saying you need to stop flying; it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.”

Of course there are no scientific studies that show that Heathrow shouldn’t have a third runway, like there are no scientific studies proving we should fly less. That is not the realm of science. What the science does tell us is that the world has been warming up recently and that anthropogenic carbon dioxide probably has quite a lot to do with it. It’s up to society at large to work out what to do with that information.

But the sort of talismanic use of scientific knowledge displayed at Climate Camp is fuelled, at least in part, by the scientific establishment itself.

For a start, the Royal Society – the UK’s premier scientific institution – has even started enshrining pre-Enlightenment values into its constitution. Its motto Nullius in verba has been translated since 1663 as “on the word of nobody”. The motto distanced science from the scholasticism of the ancient universities. It stressed that scientific knowledge is based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than to the word of authority figures. In the 21st century, however, the Royal Society has dropped that translation. According to Robert May, former president of the Royal Society and ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK government, it is best translated as “Respect the facts”.

And which facts are we supposed to respect? Well, the Royal Society’s, of course. Hence the Society’s press release – headed “The Truth About Global Warming” – that accompanied their publication of a paper countering the claims made by the infamous TV programme The Great Global Warming Swindle that recent variations in global temperature are better explained by solar activity than by CO2 emissions. Since when has a single scientific paper constituted “the truth”? The Royal Society is harking back to the days of scholasticism and its figures of authority.

This can only serve to close down the scientific debate, even though the scientific process is absolutely dependent on that debate, scrutiny of ideas, scepticism and argument to establish robust material truths.

Meanwhile, those who go against the ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change – which is itself a very slippery entity to pin down – are labelled deniers or heretics, who are, we are told by the Royal Society, the work of the Devil, or at least his modern, secular equivalent, ExxonMobil.

But some scientific fundamentalists go further than that. Dissenters, they say, are not just corrupt, or disrespectful of the facts, or plain-old-fashioned wrong – they are deluded, maladapted or ill.

In an editorial earlier this year in the journal Medscape General Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry Steven Moffic proposed the use of aversion therapy involving “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” to encourage responsible environmental behaviour among sceptics – this is less Clockwork Orange and more Clockwork Green.

Meanwhile, German psychologist Andreas Ernst has developed a theory that people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

OK, so these are extreme examples. But they aren’t really so different from more mainstream efforts to describe complex human behaviour in simplistic biological terms.

It’s hard to talk about scientific fundamentalism without mentioning Richard Dawkins. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science exemplifies such efforts. To quote: “We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason. What is it about human psychology that predisposes people to find astrology more appealing than astronomy?”

The assumption here is that humans are biologically predisposed to the irrational – although only some human beings of course – the ones who are wrong.

Another tack that Dawkins takes is to write off religion and unreason to mind-controlling memes, hypothetical units of cultural selection that supposedly compete for space in the habitat of human brains. This posits religion and unreason as mind viruses. And the memes meme has caught on to an extent that is disproportionate to its scientific status. It has to date proven un-testable, and has zero explanatory power. This is not science; it is humanities-envy.

Again, that is contrary to the Enlightenment values of human agency and rationality. Because if ‘bad’ ideas are the products of parasitic memes, then why not the ‘good’ ones? The label of science is being used to escape the need to confront ideas politically. It betrays an unwarranted faith not in God, but in Nature, determinism, and in humans as mechanistic biological entities rather than social, rational ones who are both the products and the architects of civilisation.

Scientists have traditionally offered us a better, brighter future. And science has delivered. Now it seems that the best it can do is hope to make that future a less terrible one.

Martin Rees, current President of the Royal Society tells us in his book Our Final Century that humankind has a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century. That judgement has nothing to do with science – scientists can barely model the climate yet, let alone the future course of human history. And yet it has scientific authority on the basis that its author is President of the Royal Society. And the Royal Society – as they themselves tell us – are the custodians of the facts.

Give me a conventionally religious person with a positive vision for how we might go about creating a better future, any day, instead of those secularists who foretell the end of the world, who propound meme theory as an explanation for culture, or those at Climate Camp waving peer-reviewed scientific papers at the TV cameras.

I repeat – atheism is not just another fundamentalism. And nor is science. But, if it is going to continue being the invaluable tool for humanity that it has been since the Enlighte
nm

ent, it has to be very careful that it doesn’t become one.

More Heat than Light on the Warming Swindle

Martin Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle is in the news again following an open letter to Wag TV signed by 37 scientists. The Letter, organised by Bob Ward – former Senior Manager for Policy Communication at the Royal Society, complains about the DVD release of the film.

We believe that the misrepresentation of facts and views, both of which occur in your programme, are so serious that repeat broadcasts of the programme, without amendment, are not in the public interest … In fact, so serious and fundamental are the misrepresentations that the distribution of the DVD of the programme without their removal amounts to nothing more than an exercise in misleading the public. 

This isn’t censorship, Ward argues in the Guardian. ‘Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements’, which raises the question about what free speech actually is if it is not freedom, amongst other things, to…er…speak – even if it’s not the truth. But if Ward is really against ‘misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements’, he might set his sights closer to home, on his former boss and co-signature Robert May, for example, who doesn’t appear to be against making factually inaccurate statements either. Ward, May, and others in and around the Royal society are conspicuously silent about mistakes/overstatements/distortions/lies (you decide) made by NGOs, politicians, and indeed their fellow scientists when it doesn’t contradict what seems to be emerging as their own clearly political agenda.

For example, the Guardian reports that,

Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford who signed the letter, said the programme “took a very cavalier attitude to science. There are important issues around climate change that the public should be discussing, but all this programme did was rehash debates that were had and finished in the scientific community 15 years ago.” 

Allen doesn’t tell us which debates he thinks have been ‘had and finished’. But, if the debate is indeed now over, then why would scientists and IPCC contributors still be challenging the scientific consensus and the politics which flows from it? Allen means, of course, that he likes to think that the debate is over but this is simply wishful thinking. The implication is that Allen et al get to decide when the debate is over, not anyone else. This is neither good science, nor good politics. Debate exists where there is a challenge to an idea, not when a select committee decides that it has had enough.

It might be that these scientists and the Royal Society simply don’t recognise their own political agenda. This seems likely given the apparent inability of these scientists-turned-pundits to see the irony of their own words. Take, for example, Allen’s comments in the Guardian:

“What Martin Durkin and Channel 4 don’t understand is the way science works. Science is about the arguments, not the people who make them.” 

Allen makes an argument about ‘Martin Durkin and Channel 4’ as though it was not an argument based on their credibility. Similarly, Robert May suggests that ‘an active and well-funded “denial lobby”‘ prevents the truth being heard, and that it ‘shares many features with the lobby that for so long denied that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer’. This does not tally with Allen’s view that science is about the arguments, not the arguers, and neither do the Royal Society’s statements about the debate. For example, in setting out its views on the climate change controversies on its website, the Royal Society tells us that

This is not intended to provide exhaustive answers to every contentious argument that has been put forward by those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming. 

It goes on to explain that

There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions… Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded… 

The RS does not appear to be doing ‘science’ here at all. It would rather we take its word for it that any challenge to the consensus has no scientific basis, but is politically motivated. This is itself a political argument, not a scientific one. The RS would have us believe that no criticism can be legitimate; the crisis is too urgent. As Martin Rees, the current president of the Royal Society puts it:

Those who promote fringe scientific views but ignore the weight of evidence are playing a dangerous game. They run the risk of diverting attention from what we can do to ensure the world’s population has the best possible future. 

And what kind of ‘best possible future’ does Rees imagine? Well, according to his book, not a very good one. Indeed, Rees can only imagine a future which gives the human race a 50/50 chance of surviving beyond 2100. Political conspiracies… Bond-esque villains plotting the end of civilisation… looming apocalypses… Killer robots… Were Rees not president of the RS, we might expect him to go around in a tin-foil hat.

Perhaps the reason that Rees and his fellow scientists need to make these bleak statements about the future is because of an inability to imagine a role for science without the raison d’etre that crisis provides. This would suggest a limited view of the value of science to society – one reduced to saving the world from a range of nightmares rather than making it a better place. This fantasy gives legitimacy, authority and purpose. It is, therefore, in their interests to defend superficially plausible theories about the end of the world. Indeed this group of scientists (many of them – Rees and May, for example – not climate scientists) have constructed arguments which fall apart when the idea that ‘the debate is over’ is challenged (even if there remains the likelihood that CO2 emissions are influencing the climate) precisely because their argument is about the politics not the science. If the debate is not over, and consequently, there is no crisis then there is no purpose for any of the organisations whose role it is to provide consensus. It is because of this that they need to insist that the debate is over, rather than to encourage it. They ought to be shedding light on the matter, and making sense of the science, not defending a course of action out of the necessity of justifying themselves. This is politics.

May, Rees and the Royal Society in general make much of the vested interests of the so-called ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’, but these are accusations that can be thrown straight back at them. The matter has become so politicised that there are now reputations, jobs, livelihoods, grants, interests, and political positions at stake here. Indeed, the Royal Society is responsible for the distribution of £40 million of public and private funds to scientists. How likely it is that any of those funds get allocated to research that sets out to challenge the IPCC consensus? And given the ferocious statements made by leading RS scientists, how many scientists who might be in a position to develop theories that could challenge ‘the consensus’ might be put off approaching the RS for funding?

But why would Bob Ward, who no longer holds a position at the RS, and who is not a climate scientist, have anything to say about who is right or wrong on matters of climate science? Ward left his job at the RS to take a job as Director of Global Science Networks at risk analysis firm RMS, which serves ‘more than 400 insurers, reinsurers, trading companies, and other financial institutions‘ so that they ‘achieve financial stability while optimizing profitability and growth‘.

Might it be that just as political capital is generated by the urgency of climate change arguments, there are financial interests also? RMS sell their services to their clients who, if persuaded that the confidence intervals given by the IPCC are not quite what they seem, might not be prepared to fork out for insurance premiums. As the RMS website tells us:

Over the last decade catastrophe modeling technology has become a vital tool for quantifying, managing, and transferring risk in the insurance industry … Any company with financial assets exposed to catastrophes can benefit from catastrophe modeling. Insurers, reinsurers, brokers, financial markets, and corporations have all recognized the need to synthesize available scientific research with quantitative techniques to evaluate the probability of financial loss…. Today, RMS provides catastrophe modeling solutions to more companies than any other organization… RMS models are the standard for quantifying catastrophe risk in countries all over the world. RMS offers catastrophe models in over 40 countries, allowing underwriters to confidently price risk and analyze the probability of loss in regions with the highest exposure. 

Just as politicians turn fear of risk into political capital, so too can fear of risk be turned into hard cash – fear of risk is to RMS what oil is to Exxon. Yet if somebody holding a senior position at Exxon were to make similar public statements about taking liberties with scientific fact, they would face a storm of protest. Indeed, Bob Ward might be inclined to write them an open letter

That said, we have no intention of reducing scientific climate debates to squabbles about who funds whom or who has what competing interests. Neither do we wish to defend any mistakes or ‘deliberate distortions’ made by Durkin in his film. But Ward and his colleagues have blundered into the affair in the manner of people aggrieved that their authority has been challenged rather than as scientists with the best available information to hand. They would rather silence dissenters than address their arguments. And the only casualties from that are the reputations of science and scientists.