Tipping Point for the Climate Porn Industry

Headlines don’t get much more alarmist than this…

As Tory Outcast points out, the story that the Independent Newspaper thinks a catastrophe is in fact far more mundane:

The article by Tony Patterson tells the story of two commercial vessels which have managed to navigate the North East passage and uses their success as irrefutable proof that we are all going to die.

Such high-pitched tabloidism from the ‘Independent’ is nothing new of course. It epitomises what a think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), called, in 2006, ‘Climate Porn’. A BBC article at the time, picked up the story, and quoted IPPR’s head of climate change, Simon Retallack:

“It is appropriate to call [what some of these groups publish] ‘climate porn’, because on some level it is like a disaster movie,” Mr Retallack told the BBC News website.

“The public become disempowered because it’s too big for them; and when it sounds like science fiction, there is an element of the unreal there.”

Later that year, the then Director of the Tyndall Centre, Professor Mike Hulme warned that the language being used – not just by the media, but also by politicians, campaigners, and scientists – in the discussion around climate change was increasingly removed from anything scientific, and was likely to encourage people to switch off:

But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.

It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.

[…]

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.

Three years later, the BBC reports this week from the British Science Festival:

The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey.

Twice as many people now agree that “claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated”.

Four in 10 believe that many leading experts still question the evidence. One in five are “hard-line sceptics”.

The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.

Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh, who conducted the research while at the Tyndall Centre, doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the words of her former boss. As with much social science dealing with matters of climate change, the survey seems to have less to do with shedding light on public attitudes and behaviour and more to do with trying to change them:

“Unfortunately, some people latch on to this uncertainty and say ‘let’s carry on as we are’.”

She feels that many people are not “playing their part” in reducing humanity’s impact on the environment.

[…]

“In general people are showing little willingness to change their lifestyles.

“They will recycle, unplug the TV and change their light bulbs; but they won’t change how they travel or how they eat.

“These are the things that are going to make the biggest difference”

It’s interesting that Whitmarsh’s case seems to be reliant on the same outmoded notion of science communication that social scientists have been instrumental in dispelling. The ‘deficit model’ holds that public opposition to certain scientific developments and technologies is simply the result of scientific illiteracy. Get the public up to speed, it says, and they will surely make the ‘right’ decisions. We’ve mentioned before that, while the deficit model and the push for ‘public understanding of science’ have generally been supplanted by strategies of ‘public engagement’ and ‘upstream engagement’, and science academies and governments seek dialogues with the public on everything from nanotech to genomics, climate change is the subject of decidedly one-way conversations. Which is hardly surprising, given that climate change mitigation is central to all parties’ manifestos while at the same time being the source of significant distrust on the part of the electorate.

Whitmarsh does attempt to distance herself from the deficit model:

we argue that there is a need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in relation to carbon literacy, and to explore situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions, within the broader context of structural opportunities for and barriers to low‐carbon lifestyles.

But that all goes out of the window when it comes to how to get people to do the ‘right’ thing:

Together this evidence indicates that individuals would benefit from education to promote understanding and skills to manage their carbon emissions, as well as structural measures to enable and encourage carbon capability. Our survey showed that misperceptions exist which may be addressed through informational approaches (e.g., highlighting the contribution of meat production to climate change). However, the low uptake of alternatives to driving and flying, and of political actions, likely reflects broader structural and cultural impediments to behaviour change noted elsewhere.

She says as much, too, in her comments to the BBC:

But I think what we have to get across is that residual uncertainty in science is normal.

‘Residual uncertainty’ has nothing to do with it. The problem for Whitmarsh, and other academics who fail to identify the difference between activism and research, is that the over-statement of ‘the science’ is not normal, and the public are actually rather more clued up – even if only instinctively – than she gives them credit for. And in fact the public seem rather better informed than her.

As we saw, the IPPR and the Director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research – none of them sceptics – were warning back in 2006 that the climate change pudding had been over-egged, and was likely to damage the possibility of reaching the public. Mike Hulme, as director of the Tyndall Centre, would have been Whitmarsh’s boss. It’s not as if Whitmarsh could possibly be unaware of the criticisms of the over-statement of climate change.

Yet she searches for ways in which the public might be force-fed ‘carbon literacy’ programmes.

There exist several non-climate-sceptic explanations for the public’s reluctance to absorb the climate change agenda that didn’t appeal to clumsy hypotheses about disparity between official scientific truth and public opinion. These explanations credit the public with sufficient intelligence to have identified the tendency of many politicians, scientists, campaigners and journalists to exaggerate climate change with stories of ‘tipping points’, ‘N-year windows to save the planet’, and ‘inevitable catastrophe’. But Whitmarsh seems to ignore these far more simple accounts, and takes the view that a new way of conveying the same imperatives to the public is needed, rather than reflecting on the possibility that the public have, in fact, well understood the message and found it wanting. That is to say that it is possible to believe that climate change is a problem, while believing that the politics, posturing and glib copy that is produced seemingly in order to address the problem in fact plainly demonstrate a self-serving and cynical view of the public. Indeed, the ‘man in the street’ seems able to see in the environmental psychologist what the environmental psychologist can’t even see in herself. This inability to self-reflect is the defining characteristic – the symptom – of the entire climate change movement and those who uncritically engage in climate politics. With just a few, largely ignored exceptions, they will criticise anyone but themselves in reflecting on their own failure.

Back in 2006, in the BBC article featuring the IPPR’s criticism of climate porn, the Independent’s deputy editor, Ian Birrell defended his paper thus:

If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us

No sooner than his words were spoken, the readers of the Independent decided to express their own independence:

In fact, our models suggest that the Indy will go into negative circulation in Summer 2018:

But scientists predict the tipping point may have already passed sooner than will would have was been previously thought.

Climate Science Rules

Over at the Register, Stu has an interview with Professor Mike Hulme:

Just two years ago, Mike Hulme would have been about the last person you’d expect to hear criticising conventional climate change wisdom. Back then, he was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, an organisation so revered by environmentalists that it could be mistaken for the academic wing of the green movement. Since leaving Tyndall – and as we found out in a telephone interview – he has come out of the climate change closet as an outspoken critic of such sacred cows as the UN’s IPCC, the “consensus”, the over-emphasis on scientific evidence in political debates about climate change, and to defend the rights of so-called “deniers” to contribute to those debates…

Here it is.

A good excuse to recycle one of our favourite videos:

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The Great Danish Pastry Swindle

The climate conference in Copenhagen that ended this week produced a barrage of startling headlines, many of them from just one man.

On Tuesday, the Guardian’s junior climate alarmist, David Adam surprised us with an uncharacteristically non-doom-laden article:

Greenland ice tipping point ‘further off than thought’

The giant Greenland ice sheet may be more resistant to temperature rise than experts realised. The finding gives hope that the worst impacts of global warming, such as the devastating floods depicted in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, could yet be avoided.

That evening, David’s mood soured:

Global warming may trigger carbon ‘time bomb’, scientist warns

Even modest amounts of global warming could trigger a carbon “time bomb” and release massive amounts of greenhouse gases from frozen Arctic soils, a new study has warned.

By Wednesday, David’s gloom reached unprecedented levels:

Caught on camera: The Greenland tunnels that could speed ice melt

The Greenland ice sheet is riddled with channels that could quicken ice loss and speed sea level rise, a new study has revealed.

That afternoon, David’s gloom was worse than previously thought:

Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts

Global sea levels could rise much higher this century than previously projected, raising the threat level for millions of people who live in low-lying areas, new research suggests. Scientists at a climate change summit in Copenhagen say changes in the polar ice sheets could raise sea levels by a metre or more by 2100. The implications could be severe.

On Thursday, David’s gloom exceeded even the worst projections.

Severe global warming will render half of world’s inhabited areas unliveable, expert warns

Severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in, a US scientist warned today.

By that afternoon, things had passed a tipping point:

Europe ‘will be hit by severe drought’ without urgent action on emissions

Europe will be struck by a series of severe droughts that will make life “hell” for hundreds of millions of people unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, a new study shows. … Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, Greece and numerous other countries would be turned to semi-desert as climate change turned off their rainfall… Asked what life would be like there, Warren said: “Hell, I should think. It is incomprehensible to imagine adapting to that level of drought.”

Adam operates on the principal of one article per scientific paper. We’ve mentioned this ‘tyranny of the news peg’ before. It reduces the scientific process to a rolling news service devoid of context and analysis, allowing Adam to report, on consecutive days, that Greenland ice melt is, respectively, less and more imminent than previously thought. It is as if scientific truth equals the sum of all the papers produced on a scientific subject divided by their number, and that for truth and democracy to triumph, he just has to precis a sample of them, and distribute them between the categories of ‘worse…’ or ‘better than previously thought’, so that our minds can be made up by the law of averages. But if he does see his role as a passive conduit for information, he misunderstands both the workings and the function of both science and journalism.

A further caution that Adam throws to the wind is that much of the new research he reports on will not yet have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Conferences are like that. They are a platform for scientists to present more tentative results, hypotheses and interpretations. We could find no sign in the literature of any of the studies Adam mentions. And many of them will not make it through the review process, or will only do so having been revised beyond recognition in terms of their scientific and/or political content.

Of the hundreds of papers that were presented at the conference – many of them in poster sessions [PDF] – Adam has selected just a tiny handful: the most salacious, sensational, and terrifying (or that can be billed as such) at the expense of investigating the nuances to the arguments about what is or isn’t true, and what to do about it, and presented this highly polarised perspective as an account of what ‘science says’.

To pluck just one of Adam’s stories from the pile, on the Thursday he was claiming that ‘severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in’ and that ‘people will not be able to adapt to a much warmer climate as well as previously thought’. The story was based on a paper presented by Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, who adds human physiology into the climate models to suggest that ‘physiological limits of the human body will begin to render places impossible to support human life if the average global temperature rises by 7C on pre-industrial levels’. While predictions about the physiological constraints on our ability to tolerate high temperatures might be very useful, in itself, it says nothing about our ability to inhabit these places – and even less about our ability to ‘adapt to a much warmer climate’. After all, here in Northern Europe we wouldn’t survive the winter if we didn’t have homes to go to. We don’t know whether Sherwood made these claims, or if they are Adam’s own original contribution to ‘the science’, but either way it demonstrates a complete failure to scrutinise and question what are preliminary research findings.

By Friday, David had decided to speak for scientists on the Guardian’s podcast.

Climate change warning: ‘We’re sick of having our messages lost in political noise’

The message might sound familiar is that we have to act, and that we have to act now. But I think the scientists, they have been saying it for a while, and we’ve been saying it in the media for a while… but I think the scientists have lost a little bit of patience almost. I mean one said to me here that we’re sick of having our carefully constructed messages lost in the political noise. You know this is the scientific community standing up and saying enough is enough, we’ve lost patience, get your act together.

We have to take David’s word for it that he wasn’t one of those people losing the ‘carefully constructed messages’ in the political noise. We’ve said it before, the likes of David Adam, who aren’t scientists and clearly have a lot of sympathy with environmentalism, like environmentalists, don’t recognise their own noise as political. It is curious that none of the 2,500 attendees – natural scientists, social scientists, activists, dignitaries, corporates and journalists – had lost sufficient patience to go on the record to evince their frustration and impatience, and the only people he can get to confirm his message are Nicholas Stern and Rajendra Pachauri – neither of them climate scientists.

One climate scientist who does make a distinction between science and political noise is Professor Mike Hulme. Writing on Roger Pielke Jr’s Prometheus blog, Hulme wonders about the kind of ‘action’ that Adam was calling for on behalf of scientists:

What exactly is the ‘action’ the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions? I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognized as such.

David Adam might want to reflect on his own words more carefully. Perhaps the frustrated scientists he was taking evidence from were talking more about him, than to him. Hulme continues:

But then we need to be clear about what authority these political messages carry. They carry the authority of the people who drafted them – and no more. Not the authority of the 2,500 expert researchers gathered at the conference. And certainly not the authority of collective global science. Caught between summarizing scientific knowledge and offering political interpretations of such knowledge, the six key messages seem rather ambivalent in what they are saying. It is as if they are not sure how to combine the quite precise statements of science with a set of more contested political interpretations.

These six statements were issued after the conference by its organisers. Clearly they moved David Adam, but not Mike Hulme, who points out that the authors are not qualified to speak for the conference as a whole, and that no synthesis was produced, and nor was the conference capable of producing a synthesis.

It therefore seems problematic to me when such lively, well-informed and yet largely unresolved debates among a substantial cohort of the world’s climate change researchers gets reduced to six key messages, messages that on the one hand carry the aura of urgency, precision and scientific authority – ‘there is no excuse for inaction’ – and yet at the same time remain so imprecise as to resolve nothing in political terms.

It’s worth reading Mike Hulme’s post in full, rather than reading snippets that we’ve borrowed in order to illustrate David Adam’s ridiculous alarmism.

Hulme qualifies as neither a ‘sceptic’ nor a ‘denier’, and sensibly advises that science and politics are not the same thing. This nuanced argument is lost on David Adam. The problem is that throughout his prose is the theme that the images he presents and studies he cites are instructive… ‘we have to act, and we have to act now’. This urgency is also the theme of so many climate activists, politicians and commentators.

Adam’s alarm is premature, and it stems from an expectation of science that it simply cannot live up to. As Hulme puts it:

A gathering of scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change. But then why should it? All that can be told – and certainly should be told – is that climate change brings new and changed risks, that these risks can have a range of significant implications under different conditions, that there is an array of political considerations to be taken into account when judging what needs to be done, and there are a portfolio of powerful, but somewhat untested, policy measures that could be tried.

The rest is all politics. And we should let politics decide without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity.

It is striking that while – judging by his podcast – Adam seems to have picked up on the frustrations expressed by certain scientists about the lack of nuance, he hasn’t the faintest clue what it means. He hears murmurings about the messy overlap between science and politics, and yet seems so immersed in his model of the world as one that will be the death of us all that he doesn’t know what to do with that information. He ends up interpreting the frustration about lack of nuances as a signal that everything should be blacker and whiter – as if the nuance that has been lost from the debate is that we are all going to die. Adam wants science to settle the political debate, and he wants it now

And here is where we think Hulme’s otherwise excellent observations stop short. He doesn’t attempt to explain why politicians, activists and journalists like Adam have such expectations of science.

As we have argued previously, the dynamic driving the climate debate is less about what has emerged from climate science, and more about what appear to be political agendas. As Hulme observes, in many instances, politics is prior to science in the debate. But it might be truer to say that it is a lack of politics that is prior to the science. Science – or rather images of catastrophe given scientific credibility – fills the void. It re-orientates the disoriented, gives moral purpose in a world beset far less by climate problems than moral relativism, and gives political significance to causes that have long lacked rebels.

No field of science is immune to being used to fill politics-shaped holes. Science is seen less as a valuable tool with which to improve humanity’s lot and open our minds, and becoming a blunt instrument with which to beat the opposition. Campaigners on all sides of abortion debates increasingly fall back on science to make their moral case. The fact of evolution by natural selection has become almost synonymous with atheism. Depending on who you talk to, genetic technologies will feed the world or turn it to grey sludge. But it is environmental science – and its resonance with our sense of futility – that has gained by far the most political purchase.

David Adam’s work typifies this symptom. Being able only to see the world through the prism of climate change represents a failure to sustain a coherent analysis and a lack of confidence in even his own subjectivity – hence appeals to scientific authority. For Adam, climate change distinguishes right from wrong, left from right, good from bad. Just as each major UK political party has absorbed environmentalism into its manifesto, so too have journalists used it to inform the entirety of their own perspective on the world. This limited form of discourse is not about engagement with or criticism of the decision-making processes and the direction of society, it is about causal inevitabilities and moral imperatives issued by ‘the science’. ‘Science says…’.

The result is politics, ethics, democracy stripped entirely of their human meaning. Climate change rescues mediocrity and intellectual poverty from obscurity, and puts them centre stage, dressed as a super-heroes. As Adam shows, writing ‘worse than previously thought’ often enough turns you into a full time employee of the Guardian, and turns climatology into ethical and political science. If climate change didn’t generate moral imperatives, it would leave room for debate. And debate is for the ‘deniers’, who want to profit from the end of the world, or something.

In his most recent article, Adam entirely uncritically quotes the economist (and not climate scientist) Nick Stern:

Speaking after giving a keynote speech, Stern said he feared that politicians had not grasped the seriousness of the crisis. “Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. Looking back, the Stern review underestimated the risks and underestimated the damage from inaction.”

Just a few decades ago, World Bank economists, even ex-world bank economists (such as Stern) were just about the epitome of evil for radicals, liberals, and leftists. The World Bank served Western corporate interests at the expense of developing nations. Today, Stern is celebrated by radicals, liberals and lefties, while he advances the climate change cause, and positions himself to take financial advantage of the carbon markets created by the regulations that he was instrumental in devising, which foist ‘sustainability’ on both the developed and developing world. Stern knows full well that governments have not failed to act. His own government, for example, has committed the UK to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, and the US is on course to do the same.

With all countries apparently committed to ‘action’ on climate change, the rhetorical escalation emerging at this conference is perhaps puzzling. What country is standing against an agreement at the next climate talks in Copenhagen?

We have previously speculated that the preparedness for an international deal on climate change presents campaigners with a problem. If everyone agrees, what role do you play, as an activist/scientist? By achieving an agreement, you undermine your role. Adam, who saw the world through the prism of climate change, no longer has a footing. Like Stern, he therefore has to reinvent his position. It’s ‘worse than previously thought’ and ‘governments don’t understand’. Because in a world defined by, and seen only through the climate change debate, once the principal debate is over, you also lose your orientation and perspective. If everyone is committed, you cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong, because the debate is no longer polarised. Eyes that are filtered green, cannot see anything in a world that is entirely green. They are blind.

It seems that the alarmism issued by the likes of Adam, Stern, and the conference organisers’ six statements represent a bizarre rear-guard action, not against prevailing forces of inaction, but their own blindness, and their own redundancy. They are fighting their own success.

There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches ? economic, technological, behavioural, management ? to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

Previously, Professor Hulme has spoken about ‘climate porn’ – the tendency of activists, journalists and politicians to use the most distressing images, worst-case scenarios, and single studies stripped of their caveats and cautions. But there is another sense in which this expression illuminates the climate debate. Climate porn is to debate what porn is to human relationships. It simulates drama and engagement by crudely satisfying base lusts and fantasies with explicit images without the danger of rejection. But it is principally an inconsequential solo pastime in which understanding and negotiation with anothers is avoided. It achieves no resolution or synthesis, and objectifies humans, their ambitions and desires. Worst still, to paraphrase what the adage warns, climate porn will make you blind.

Observing the Observer

The Observer (the Sunday Guardian) welcomes the appointment of a Gaia-botherer to Obama’s team.

The decision by Barack Obama to appoint John Holdren as his chief scientific adviser deserves widespread welcome. The Harvard academic and former energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, commands international respect among physicists, climate experts and other researchers. He is an able scientist and is also a vociferous critic of those who still deny our planet is overheating because of humanity’s industrial activities.

Holdren’s perspective on the climate debate is no more sophisticated than George Monbiot’s:

The few climate-change “skeptics” with any sort of scientific credentials continue to receive attention in the media out of all proportion to their numbers, their qualifications, or the merit of their arguments. And this muddying of the waters of public discourse is being magnified by the parroting of these arguments by a larger population of amateur skeptics with no scientific credentials at all.

As John Tierney argues in the NY Times, Holdren confuses politics with science.

Dr. Holdren is certainly entitled to his views, but what concerns me is his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions. Even if most climate scientists agree on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, that doesn’t imply that the best way to deal with the problem is through drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. There are other ways to cope, and there’s no “scientific consensus” on which path looks best.

And the Observer does much the same thing. The editorial continues:

Thus Obama, who takes up office on 20 January, has made it clear through Holdren’s appointment that global warming is going to be dealt with robustly by his administration. There is no longer room for doubt. Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making. Accepting this point is heartening news for the US – and for the rest of the world which, until now, has looked in vain for strong leadership from America in combating global warming. It was in part the hope of a change in US climate policy that helped give last November’s presidential elections such keen global interest.

The claim that “Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making” lacks scientific foundation, as Professor Mike Hulme explained to the BBC in 2006:

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. […] The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.

Even if we take it for granted that a ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change exists, it only speaks about a possible influence of anthropogenic CO2 on the climate, not the outcome of that influence, let alone the best policy response. The remainder is projection and speculation. That is to say that the catastrophic scenarios offered by climate alarmists are not constructed from ‘science’ by scientists, but from projections by a rag-bag of social scientists, economists, political activists, and any old Tom, Dick or Harry who cares to speculate, under (at least) two very significant (but always omitted from the discussion) assumptions.

The first is the precautionary principle. This allows any superficially plausible scenario to have weight in the climate debate by amplifying any possible risk to its maximum; what-if stacked upon what-if stacked upon what-if. The second is environmental determinism – the idea that society’s future (and its history) is determined by climatic factors rather than our ability to adapt and innovate.

These two principles are not science. They are politics. What they create is indistinct from science fiction: catastrophic story-lines are constructed from only superficially plausible projections. Ruling out our ability to adapt to these projections gives the stories political significance – ‘something must be done’. Normal politics is suspended in order to avert the fictional crisis.

The Observer editorial continues:

However, there is more to the elevation of Holdren, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, than the boosting of US climate action. In selecting a scientist of his stature, Obama is signalling clearly that he will be ending policies, introduced by George W Bush, that saw science sidelined and the advice of its practitioners ignored and sometimes distorted by the White House.

It is unclear what ‘scientific stature’ Holdren is supposed to have that is so remarkable. He might have started out as a scientist, but he’s made a career out of science policy. We couldn’t spot any science in list of publications. He’s not particularly noted for his commentary outside of the climate debate, famous only really for getting things wrong when teaming up with the Godfather of neo-Malthusianism, Paul Ehrlich.

But there’s something even more curious about the Observer’s commentary – that Holdren’s appointment is supposed to be some kind of victory for ‘science’ after the Bush administration. This highlights the vacuity of Bush’s critics (that’s no defence of Bush, by the way). As we can see, this ‘science’, isn’t science. It is catastrophism (via environmental determinism and the precautionary principle), with almost no scientific basis. Yet the idea of catastrophe is the only ‘hold’ Bush’s critics have over him. So it’s not science the Observer is talking about at all. If it is a victory for anything, it is a victory for fear-mongery: exactly what critics (many in the Observer) of Bush (and, for that matter, Tony Blair – ‘dodgy dossier and sexed-up documents) criticised Bush for – for his War on Terror: the use of fear to further his political agenda.

In other words, all that separates Bush from his successors is a fiction. They are at least as remote from science and its rational treatment as he was.

Hundreds of instances of political interference in the work of government agency researchers have been recorded over the past eight years, a shameful state of affairs that led to the demoralisation of thousands of US scientists. With Holdren, Obama has indicated this will now be brought to an end.

Or has it only just begun? If the only weapon that exists in the anti-Bush arsenal is a fiction, which is defended by contempt for scientific debate, what free debate – let alone scientific research – can we expect? Climate science has been thoroughly colonised by political interests.

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.

[youtube Mix8RlJYz58]
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.

[youtube VLHbn3kNTfg]
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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On the Horizon

1) Battle of Ideas, 1-2 November, Royal College of Art, London

If last year’s event is anything to go by, it will be very good indeed. Here’s Professor Mike Hulme, School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and founding Director (2000-2007) of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, speaking at last year’s Battle at the session The Science and Politics of Climate Change, ten days after Al Gore and the IPCC got their Nobel Peace Prize:

To me it seems implicit that good science, as represented by the IPCC, plus good communication, as represented by Al Gore, will deliver peace on Earth. [But] it is not the case that, we have the scientific debate, then once we agree what the scientific evidence is, we simply have to communicate it, peace will break out, the world will act, and the problem would be solved. That is not what science’s role is; it’s not how most public political issues are resolved; and it’s certainly not the way climate change is going to be tackled […] The real issues are why we disagree about what to do about climate change. And science cannot provide us with the script that we all read from.

And if you have a spare 10 minutes, the rest is good, too:

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As are the other three speakers (90 minutes)

A couple of events jump out at us from the 2008 programme: Is our behaviour determined by our evolution?

Is the renewed interest in the evolutionary, genetic and psychological basis of human behaviour inspired by new evidence, or a diminished view of the human condition? Are social and cultural phenomena beyond the proper scope of natural science, or have we just become less hysterical about turning the microscope on ourselves?

Which makes us think of Andreas Ernst, Steven Moffic and Richard Louv. They aren’t on the panel. But the excellent Raymond Tallis is.

And for anybody intrigued by the uncanny similarities between environmentalism and the War on Terror, there’s Eco-imperialism?:

… Environmental concerns have joined terrorism and nuclear proliferation as key preoccupations in international affairs since the end of the Cold War. Free from the political constraints of the ‘old world order’, UN officials, Western politicians and NGOs frequently argue that the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of ‘rogue’ sovereign states.Should industrial pollution and the destruction of natural habitats be seen as ‘crimes against nature’ (ecocide), justifying ecological interventions similar to humanitarian ones? Is the use of force to prevent serious and immediate environmental harm something we should now seriously consider? Or would this amount to ‘eco-imperialism’, transgressing international legal and political norms and state sovereignty?

2) Beyond the Pole, at a cinema near you, maybe, one day:

the first carbon-neutral, organic, and vegetarian option… er… expedition to make the pole

Perhaps satire isn’t dead after all. Although real life did beat them to it.

Who'd've Discredited It?

‘Case against climate change discredited by study’ shrieked the Independent yesterday. That must be one hell of a study. Except that it isn’t:

A difference in the way British and American ships measured the temperature of the ocean during the 1940s may explain why the world appeared to undergo a period of sudden cooling immediately after the Second World War.

Scientists believe they can now explain an anomaly in the global temperature record for the twentieth century, which has been used by climate change sceptics to undermine the link between rising temperatures and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Not only does the study (published this week in Nature) not claim to discredit what the Independent‘s headline claims it discredits, but it doesn’t even discredit what the scientists behind the study claim it discredits. Moreover, what the scientists claim their work does discredit was, according to prominent Environmentalists, discredited years ago. And finally, what everybody seems to be trying to discredit isn’t even something that sceptics seem to be crediting in the first place.

Yes, sceptics are concerned about the post-war temperature slump, but not because of the sudden steep drop around 1945; it is the downward trend in temperatures between about 1945 and 1975 that they suggest needs explaining (which is actually longer than the upward trend between 1975 and 1998, just so you know), given that greenhouse gas emissions were rising throughout that period.

And as the graph used by the Independent to bolster its case (supplied by CRU, apparently) demonstrates, the Nature study does absolutely nothing to address that concern:

In fact, the most striking thing about the graph is that, once the sampling errors identified by the study have been taken into account, the period of warming in the latter half of the twentieth century was shorter than previously thought, and that the ’45-’75 temperature slump is more pronounced.

According to Phil Jones, a co-author of the paper, the study

lends support to the idea that a period of global cooling occurred later during the mid-twentieth century as a result of sulphate aerosols being released during the 1950s with the rise of industrial output. These sulphates tended to cut sunlight, counteracting global warming caused by rising carbon dioxide.

“This finding supports the sulphates argument, because it was bit hard to explain how they could cause the period of cooling from 1945, when industrial production was still relatively low,” Professor Jones said.

That might be so. But the aerosols issue is supposed to have been done and dusted long ago. One of the central criticisms aimed at the infamous Great Global Warming Swindle, for example, is precisely that it failed to entertain the idea that the post-1940 decline in global temperatures was the result of increases in sulphurous emissions that masked the forcing effect of rising atmospheric CO2. George Monbiot described the omission as ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty‘. After all, he said, that ‘temperatures declined after the Second World War as a result of sulphate pollution from heavy industry, causing global dimming…is well-known to all climate scientists.’ And as we have reported before, this was also one of the main points raised by the Royal Society’s Bob Ward and 36 scientific experts in their open letter to Swindle producer Martin Durkin.

And yet, as we’ve reported elsewhere, other experts in the field just don’t agree. UC San Diego atmospheric physicist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, for example, told us that the empirical evidence for the sulphate masking of warming is ‘pretty flimsy’. We do not doubt that the Nature study is an important contribution to the field. (Although it’s interesting that Steve McIntyre seems to have produced a similar analysis more than a year ago.) What we do doubt is that the headlines, soundbites, and wild interpretations from newspapers and scientists alike bear much relevance to what is a dry, technical, scientific study, which, while increasing our ability to understand and predict climate trends, says little in itself about the truth or otherwise of global warming.

That said, the BBC’s Richard Black has demonstrated uncharacteristic reserve in his coverage of the paper, which includes the following quote from CRU’s Mike Hulme:

Corrections for this measurement switch have not yet been applied to produce a new graph of 20th Century temperatures – that work is ongoing at the UK Met Office – but as the land temperature record shows a flattening of the upwards trend from the 1940s to the 1970s, clearly something did change around the 1940s to ameliorate the warming.

“It perhaps suggests that the role of sulphate aerosols, that cooling effect, was less powerful than we thought,” said Mike Hulme from the University of East Anglia (UEA), who was not involved in the study.

George Monbiot and the Royal Society are just plain wrong – the science is plainly not ‘settled’. And so is Steve Connor, the author of the Independent article. As he wrote last year in response to the Swindle:

The programme failed to point out that scientists had now explained the period of “global cooling” between 1940 and 1970. It was caused by industrial emissions of sulphate pollutants, which tend to reflect sunlight. Subsequent clean-air laws have cleared up some of this pollution, revealing the true scale of global warming – a point that the film failed to mention.

‘Scientists’ have ‘explained’ nothing of the sort. As this case shows, the science is not settled. Indeed science is never settled. It is constantly re-evaluating what it understands about absolutely everything. And that’s especially crucial to bear in mind when the science in question has been bestowed with the kind of political significance that climate science has. To claim otherwise is to do a disservice to both science and politics. It reduces science to a flimsy fig leaf used simply to hide the embarrassing inadequacies of the latest political fad; and it reduces politics to an aimless exercise in number-crunching.

Lucas and the Majority of Some Scientists

In a conversation about EU policy on restricting CO2 emissions from aircraft, on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, this morning, Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for the Southeast region said

Well, when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.

More often than not, what green politicians mean by “what scientists say” is actually “what green politicians say”. So this morning, we rang Caroline Lucas’s office to ask her which scientists are telling her that we’ve only got eight years left. We’ve never heard them say it, and we listen out for them saying it. They said they’d get back to us…

Meanwhile… this is not Lucas’s first comment of this nature. Back in July, we picked up on her comments on climate change scepticism being the equivalent of holocaust denial.

What’s prompted me is real concern that a recent opinion poll showed that half the population still don’t think that there’s scientific certainty about climate change; they still think there’s a real debate to be had there. And it worries me enormously because if we don’t have a population that really understands that 99.999% of international scientists do believe that climate change is happening and do believe that it’s human caused, if people don’t understand that then they’re not going to put the pressure on the politicians that is so desperately needed and so urgently needed because we’re being told we’ve literally got between five and ten years in which to put in place a proper policy framework to address climate change. And unless people are really convinced that it’s a problem they’re not going to act to change it.

Dr Lucas’s comments this morning seem equally confused. On the one hand, she appears to be claiming that people are terrified into demanding action because they’ve heard scientists say we’ve only got eight years left to save the world. On the other, she’s demanding that air travel is restricted. But if people really are as concerned about what Lucas says scientists say as Lucas says they are, then there would be no need to respond to their fear with new EU legislation, people simply wouldn’t fly. But, as she points out, aviation is a growing industry.

So if Lucas isn’t talking on behalf of the frightened public, (the ones who manage to find their way to the airport in spite of their fear) is Lucas speaking for science at least?

It turns out not, because in answer to our question, Lucas’s press office emailed us back with a bunch of links, saying,

The quote in question – that which contains the estimated ‘deadline’ of 8 years for the world’s government to act seriously on climate change – has been used generically for some time now, and is taken from a consensus view among a number of scientists.

“The consensus of a number of scientists”. Would that be the same as “the majority of some of the population”? We read the links to find out. They consisted of:

* Guardian Environment Correspondent David Adam’s interpretation of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report – “Governments are running out of time to address climate change and to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures, an influential UN panel warned yesterday”. (The influencial UN panel don’t actually seem to say that).

* A BBC Online article claiming that “The world may have little more than a decade to avert catastrophic climate change, politicians and scientists say“. But what they mean is a scientist, not scientists, because, all that “The taskforce’s scientific adviser is Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” says is “I think in the last few years the increase in emissions does cause concern. It gives you the feeling we might end up in the middle of that temperature range [1.5 and 5.5C], and if we do that wouldn’t make very good news.” Note that Pachauri isn’t a climate scientist, but has doctorates in industrial engineering and economics. Also note that Pachauri isn’t exactly what you’d call “balanced” about the politics of climate change, previously asking “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s?… If you were to accept Lomborgs way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing”.

* An article from the Socialist Workers Website. Enough said.

* A link to the IPCC’s website.

We pointed out to Lucas’s press officer that these links leave a bit to be desired. We’ve been reading the IPCC website for years, and hadn’t noticed a statement about 8 year windows, and the articles she linked to were subject to the interpretations and prejudices of their authors. And asking David Adam for an objective view of climate science is like asking Bin Laden for a balanced view of the USA. Who were these scientists? Where do they say “we’ve only got 8 years left”?

The press office again pointed us to the IPCC, emphasising that Pachauri is the “highly respected chair of the IPCC and is quoted as a spokesperson on climate change across all levels of the media”. (But does he speak ‘for scientists’?) They then referred us to the IPCC’s Working Group III Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers which, according to the press offcier “focused on economic changes that need to be made, pointing out that emissions must start declining by the year 2015 to prevent the world’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrialized temperatures”.

So we were now faced with an economic argument, rather than a scientific one. Even so, we read it. There is indeed a reference to 2015. But only one. It is the “peaking year” for CO2 emissions in one of several categories of scenarios, where CO2 is stabilised at various concentrations or less, thereby stabilising average global temperature at an amount above the “preindustrial average”. But all that is said in the report about the six categories of 177 scenarios assessed by the 33 authors is

In order to stabilize the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, emissions would need to peak and decline thereafter. The lower the stabilization level, the more quickly this peak and decline would need to occur. Mitigation efforts over the next two to three decades will have a large impact on opportunities to achieve lower stabilization levels (see Table SPM.5, and Figure SPM. 8)

There is no mention of impending catastrophe. There is no mention of deadlines. There is no mention of this being a consensus amongst scientists that we have to meet the 2015 deadline, nor any deadline over another. In spite of the fact that neither Lucas nor her press officer can produce anything which supports her claim that “scientists say we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change”, they continue to make it. The press officer finally told us that,

Both the UN and the IPCC subscribe to the figure of eight years, and many in the scientific community have also supported the need to drastically reduce emissions by 2015. Caroline has primarily relied upon both the UN conclusions and the IPCC report, and as a busy MEP without the scientific resources to physically perform independent large-scale research on climate change, working across a vast range of issues in her South East constituency and in the European Parliament on a daily basis, Caroline trusts that the IPCC and the UN provide accurate and well-researched reports.

Lucas’s press office don’t seem to want to continue the conversation, so we have had to look for statements by IPCC scientists for ourselves. You don’t need your own pocket-sized IPCC to evaluate claims made about climate science… We found two pertinent quotes on this very site.

Prof Mike Hulme of the UK’s Tyndall Centre tells us that

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[Note: AR4]. To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. Is any amount of climate change catastrophic? Catastrophic for whom, for where, and by when? What index is being used to measure the catastrophe? The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.

And of the projections in WGII, which Lucas’s press office seem to think amount to a “scientific consensus”, Kevin Trenberth tells us that,

In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers “what if” projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios. There are a number of assumptions that go into these emissions scenarios. They are intended to cover a range of possible self consistent “story lines” that then provide decision makers with information about which paths might be more desirable. But they do not consider many things like the recovery of the ozone layer, for instance, or observed trends in forcing agents. There is no estimate, even probabilistically, as to the likelihood of any emissions scenario and no best guess.Even if there were, the projections are based on model results that provide differences of the future climate relative to that today. None of the models used by IPCC are initialized to the observed state and none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate.

There is no escaping the fact that Caroline Lucas has made up what “the scientists” are telling us. However busy she is, given that ‘climate science’ is the basis of her entire political agenda, there is no excuse for not knowing what she’s talking about. Lucas neither accurately nor honestly reflects scientific opinion, yet attempts to use it to win moral arguments. Worse still is the fact that whilst she claims to be representing people who are frightened by scientific reports and reflecting the views of scientists, she is in fact doing the frightening by misrepresenting the scientists.

Just how deep does Lucas’s love of science really run? That depends on whether the science in question promises to make life better, or legitimises her alarmism. In the case of science making our lives better, ban it. “Nanotechnology will revolutionise our lives – it should be regulated” she writes in a 2003 Guardian article called “We must not be blinded by science”. Oh, sweet, sweet irony.

Battle of the Planet

The Institute of Ideas have put the video of The Science and Politics of Climate Change debate from this years Battle of Ideas festival online.

We’ve given Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre a bit of stick in our time, but he’s very good in this – “The real issues are about why we disagree about what to do about climate change, and science cannot provide us with the script from which we all read from” – as are Chris Rapley of the British Antarctic Survey, Hans Von Storch, and Joe Kaplinsky. It’s a very cool and positive debate, and they discuss their differences in good humour, avoiding the angry exchanges and accusations that too often accompany the meetings of different opinions on climate change politics and science. It’s well worth watching in its entirety.

Battling On

The Institute of Ideas are putting online a series of essays called ‘Battles in Print‘ to complement their yearly Battle of Ideas festival of debates. One of the essays was written by us. You can read it here. And here’s a preview of Climate science: truth you can wear on your hands,

’We are armed only with peer reviewed science’, declared the banner at the head of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow in August. And in one sense they were – literally. The protesters were wearing gloves made from photocopied research papers and waving them at the police and television cameras as though nothing more needed to be said. For anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that behind the gloves was a careful argument for why the runway should not be built, Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever was on hand to put them straight. ‘It’s not us saying you need to stop flying’, he said, ‘it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.’

One of the 70+ debates likely to be interesting to anyone concerned with the rise of environmentalism is The science and politics of climate change, which features:

Professor Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia; founding director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
Joe Kaplinsky, science writer
Professor Chris Rapley CBE, director, Science Museum; outgoing director, British Antarctic Survey
Hans von Storch, director, Institute for Coastal Research, GKSS Research Centre; professor at Meteorological Institute, University of Hamburg

Check out the full program for a host of other debates which will also be interesting, whichever side of the warming debate you find yourself on.

We have exceptionally busy over the last two months, which means we’ve been unable to post anything new for a while. But please keep an eye on the site, as we’re hoping things will return to normal shortly.