Know Your Times

>> UPDATE: Gore uses the flawed NYT article in his testimony to congress. READ MORE. <<

New York Times journalist, Andrew Revkin, generally writes thoughtfully in the paper, and on his Dot Earth blog, even if we generally disagree with him.

However, writing for the paper yesterday, he lowers himself to the level of debate we’re used to seeing from the likes of George Monbiot, who we frequently mention. Indeed, Revkin even quotes Monbiot.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

This is the ‘tobacco strategy’ thesis that Monbiot has taken from Naomi Oreskes. We’ve written about it on several occasions

The thesis needs no exposition here – read the links. Suffice it to say that it attempts (but also fails comprehensively) to show exactly what Revkin aims to show.

For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

That is – a conspiracy to subvert the truth according to environmentalism using those vicious weapons, argument and science within democratic debate! Bastards! How dare they?

The demonstration of the conspiracy’s weight rests on the ‘discovery’ of information (actually it was in the public domain) relating to its budget.

The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.

That’s right folks, this conspiracy was financed to the tune of a whopping great big massive huge giant vast $1.68 million dollars! A year! Wow, that’s nearly enough money for… erm… a couple of adverts!

As we’ve pointed out, $1.68 million is absolute peanuts in comparison to the spend on propaganda from environmental organisations. But these groups can’t even claim to be providing a useful service, like fuel. 

As we’ve also pointed out, many times, the efforts of these organisations is usually well out of kilter with anything that emerges from the scientific literature.

Revkin:

Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. 

We have also pointed out that the tobacco-strategy-conspiracy-theory as put forward by Oreskes substantially depends on a re-writing of scientific history: that it has long been ‘known’ as ‘fact’ that mankind is influencing the climate. In fact, the IPCC process did not produce any putative ‘certainty’ until TAR2001.

Similarly focussing on what was known by the conspiracy, and what it published, Revkin compares two statements, one public, distributed in the early 1990s, and the other private, produced in 1995:

[PUBLIC, early 1990s] “The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

[PRIVATE, 1995] “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

This is silly. Even if the private memo wasn’t written AFTER the first, the two statements are not incompatible. The role of greenhouse gasses in climate change ARE NOT well understood, even if the POTENTIAL impact of human emissions has been documented. That is why the Kyoto protocol was advanced, under the terms of the Rio Declaration, not on the basis of knowledge or of certainty, but according to the precautionary principle. The ‘potential impact’ of anthropogenic climate change has, since the dawn of climate alarmism, been understood as anything between slightly better conditions for agriculture, and total annihilation of life on Earth.

The Environmentalists’ case rests on the claim that the knowledge of the fact that CO2 can influence climate is equivalent to knowledge that it will produce widespread effects, not just to climate, but to society.

Moreover, Revkin, seemingly in search of a scoop, quotes selectively from the private document. In context, the apparent contradiction evaporates:

The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied. While, in theory, human activities have the potential to result in net cooling, a concern about 25 years ago, the current balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of particulates and particulate-formers is such that essentially all of today’s concern is about net warming. However, as will be discussed below, it is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change as a result of the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, because of the complex, possibly chaotic, nature of the climate system, it may never be possible to accurately predict future climate or to estimate the impact of increased  greenhouse gas concentrations.

The New York Times publish this comment attached to the documents.

The Public Message: Climate Uncertainty: In the early 1990s, the Global Climate Coalition was the leading voice for industries concerned that a prompt push to cut heat-trapping emissions could raise energy costs. It produced a series of “backgrounders” available to the press and policymakers. This flier appears to contradict what the coalition’s science and technology advisers were saying about the basic science pointing to substantial warming from a buildup of such gases.

 Revkin has failed to notice the incoherence of the arguments made by environmentalists. 

In summary:

1. Environmentalists confuse the ‘fact’ of anthropogenic CO2’s unquantified influence with the range of nth-order effects that it may (or may not) cause. But the fact of the influence of anthropogenic CO2 on the climate is distinct to facts of the degree of that effect, which is again logically distinct from the facts relating to the effects produced as second, third, and fourth order effects on climate systems, ecosystems, species, primary industry and civil infrastructure, economy, and society. 

2. The document contradicting the claims made in the briefing document was written after the briefing document was circulated. Therefore, no contradiction emerges from the evidence. 

3. The documents only contradict each other when quoted from selectively. 

4. The environmentalists’ case only exists by blurring distinctions between logically distinct categories of knowledge, by ignoring the order of events, by reducing matters of degree to binary true/false axioms, and by exaggerating the influence of the alleged conspiracy. 

[ETA: We have been unclear in the above post. There are two sentences which appear in the document published by the NYT.

The first says The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”

The second says “The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied.”

The first sentence appears ahead of the second in the document. The second paragraph is part of the larger paragraph, as quoted.

This changes nothing about the meaning, nor of the failure of the NYT to check their story but we thought we ought to draw people’s attention to the two instances. – Editors]

Let Them Eat Shrubbery

Science is often at its most newsworthy when it proves the blatantly obvious: getting drunk makes you more likely to fall over; sunbathing is a risk factor for sunburn, etc. But science that ‘proves’ something that journalists, commentators and policy bods like to think was blatantly obvious can also command more than its fair of column inches. Last year, for example, we reported on how a paper published by the Royal Society had proved once and for all that The Great Global Warming Swindle really did get it wrong about the influence of the sun on global warming, just like the Royal Society had said it had. More recently, there was the news that human activities had been attributed directly to the rise in temperatures at the Earth’s poles:

there was not sufficient evidence to say this for sure about the Arctic and Antarctic.

Now that gap in research has been plugged, according to scientists who carried out a detailed analysis of temperature variations at both poles.

Their study indicates that humans have indeed contributed to warming in both regions.

Which presumably came as a surprise to Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, according to whom the matter had been settled decades ago. In fact, the ‘fact’ that polar temperatures have been increasing faster than in the rest of the world was the prime ‘fact’ presented by Oreskes in her influential lecture, The American Denial of Global Warming, to justify her thesis that the whole issue of global warming and what we should do about it was done and dusted in the 1970s.

The latest example is to be found in the Independent, where Steve Connor reports on how his own personal prejudices about the restorative effects of green space are now supported by ‘the science’:

Proof at last: living near parks and woodland boosts health, regardless of social class.

Another whose assumptions are now vindicated scientifically is David Tibbatts from the charity GreenSpace:

“The study confirms what we have been saying for many years – parks are important for health and everyone should have access to high quality, beautiful and vibrant green spaces.”

The ‘proof’ is provided by a study published in last week’s issue of the Lancet (free registration required). It presents evidence that the health gap between rich and poor is narrower in areas where there is easy access to green space. Having made a good stab at controlling for the effects of socio-economic class – no easy task – the authors of the paper find that socio-economic health inequalities are nearly halved in those areas where greenery is most easily accessible compared to where it’s most sparse.

Of course, whatever the Independent might tell us, a single study rarely ‘proves’ anything, especially in such a noisy, contingent science as epidemiology. As co-author of the study Richard Mitchell of the University of Glasgow told us on the telephone:

It’s the first time anybody has done this, and inevitably it raises more questions than it answers.

Like how big the effect is compared to socio-economic class itself, for example? The answer to that one is far from clear. It’s certainly smaller, as Mitchell confirmed, but it’s hard to tell how much smaller. That’s because Mitchell and his collaborator Frank Popham (University of St Andrews) have used a narrow measure of health – mortality rate before retirement age – that does not compare directly with data on life-expectancy, which is the usual measure of health inequalities. Comparing like with like would require a separate study using different datasets. Life expectancy is approaching a decade shorter for those in the lowest social class compared to to the highest in the UK. Mitchell and Popham estimate that close proximity to green space means that an additional 1328 people live beyond retirement age per year. But it takes some imagination to expect that the latter makes much impact on the former.

And does it really follow that town planners just need to make more space for trees? Which is the take-home message of Connor’s piece:

Dr Mitchell, who is based at the university’s department of public health and health policy, said: “We would encourage the Government to consider carefully what their policy on green spaces is and to bear this research in mind when planning urban areas for the future.”

In these deterministic times – when we see ourselves as slaves to economies, climates and our evolutionary psychologies – these are questions that nobody feels the need to actually ask. Complex political questions are just too easy to ignore when simple mechanistic answers are handed out on plates.

It’s also striking that, although the paper concerned was published as part of a special issue on social inequalities in health, none of the other papers have received nearly as much attention. This paper is media-friendly precisely because it confirms the prejudices of a media machine that consistently fails to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of environmentalism.

Neither do the press reports mention any of the caveats that Mitchell and Popham raise in their paper:

We undertook a highly powered population study with a simple approach, using robust health outcomes from reliable data sources. The study was hypothesis driven, and that hypothesis was based on findings from a large amount of research. However, the study did have several weaknesses. First, the measure of exposure to green environments was restricted. Although we knew the proportion of green space in the area of residence of people who had died, we had to assume that individuals living in areas with equal proportions of green space actually had equal access to that green space. Had appropriate data been available, we could have used a measure of distance to defined green spaces as a proxy for access, although we would still have had no data for whether populations living closer to a specified green space did actually access it to a greater extent. Furthermore, quality of green space could be a substantial determinant of use and activity within it, and we had no data for quality. No national dataset describing the quality of green space to which the population has access in England is available.

Second, our data were cross-sectional. We had no means of knowing the extent to which individuals had access to green environments throughout their life. Migration before death (eg, to access residential care) could have placed some people into a distinctly different environment from that in which their disease was acquired or developed. If such migration varied by income group, our results could be affected. Since we have no data for migration patterns, we were unable to quantify the effect of this factor.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the measure of green space might be associated with other risk factors that we have not controlled for in our models. One of the difficulties of exploring the effect of physical environments on health is that access to good physical environments is strongly associated with the socioeconomic position of individuals. Residual confounding is therefore a threat to studies of this type.

Mitchell and Popham suggest that a combination of increased opportunities and motivation for physical activity plus a reduction in stress-related health problems might account for their results. This is supported, they say, by the observation that inequalities in early death due to any cause and due to circulatory diseases were reduced by close proximity to greenery while class differences in deaths due to lung cancer and suicide were not. The kind of stress that leads to circulatory disease is, according to Mitchell ‘a different sort of stress’ to that which makes smoking attractive or leads to self-harm. That maybe. But that’s certainly a claim that requires scrutiny from the scientific community.

When we spoke to him, Mitchell made it clear that planting trees is no substitute for wealth redistribution:

No government in the UK is ever going to get elected on the kind of really radical redistribution you would need to close the gap that way. The extent to which the gap shrinks in the greenest areas is more than has been achieved by current policy in the UK for quite a long time though, so this is a sizable effect. It’s really important not to overlook the redistribution of wealth. But, while we’re waiting for the revolution, it’s good news that environment can exert what seems to be a substantial influence.

We share his frustration, if not his defeatism. Wealth inequalities might have increased under the New Labour government, but that’s surely something to revile rather than run with. Mitchell makes a similar point in the press release issued by the University of Glasgow:

“Obviously, resources must still be ploughed into trying to narrow the inequality gap between rich and poor, and with that will come advances in the population’s general health.”

But Mitchell himself isn’t always so circumspect. In an article he wrote for the Sunday Herald about this research, socio-economics doesn’t get a mention. But he does sign off with a call to action:

So, the next time there is a planning permission argument in which a local green space is at risk, bear in mind that the green space is worth protecting because it is making a contribution to your health, and those of the people around you.

It reminds us of our conversation back in July with marine biologist Jason Hall-Spencer, who told us:

When you’re interviewed, you can give your own personal point of view, but when you publish a paper that goes up for rigorous peer review, then it’s got to have the caveats and everything else.

Well, yes, you can. But it doesn’t follow that you should.

In support of his case that policymakers should heed the message of his study, Mitchell also told us that:

the other thing is, so far as we know so far, green spaces don’t do any harm.

Which could read like a mission statement for environmentalism. As we tend to argue quite frequently on this site, environmental policies introduced in the absence of any better ideas can and do do harm. Green spaces and policies compete by definition for space and resources with amenities and policies that might address class inequalities per se. And when basic services such as refuse collection and sanitation are being reinvented under the banner of environmentalism, tree planting is a convenient and attractive option for cash-strapped town planners.

We feel a bit mean picking on Mitchell. The bulk of the blame certainly does not fall on his shoulders. We don’t doubt that he’s doing good science, or that his intentions are noble. But he has a career to look after like the rest of us. And as a scientist, looking after one’s career means constantly justifying one’s research in policy terms. Then there is the tyranny of the news peg – the reporting of newsworthy single studies in the absence of context or caution – to consider. And the tyranny of ‘relevant’ science. And of ‘evidence’-based policymaking. And of ‘science communication’ policies that require scientists to seek to popularise their work as part of the job description. Combined, the result is that any tin-pot political philosophy can be ‘proven’ scientifically, which does an injustice to both politics and science.

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?

[youtube gywWnvAk5cs]

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.

[youtube mqsG0nycIlQ]
It is interesting that Stewart should depict Mann as a victim of an attack on his integrity. As part of the team behind the RealClimate.org website, Mann and his team are famously unreserved in attacking their critics, rather than their critics’ work, and removing dissenting opinion from the comments section of the site. As a No Scientist article in 2006 pointed out, Mann’s aggressive character is noteworthy.

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

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

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

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

We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of course. It’s all Bush’s fault.

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

To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between “denialist” arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Environmentalism: "frustrated, angry and confused"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENVIRONMENTalism

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

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

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

He continues, oblivious,

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

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

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

We repeat:

ENVIRONMENTalism

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

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

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

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

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

He continues with another mischaracterisation…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened to the Precautionary Principle?

It only seems like yesterday that the Precautionary Principle was the standard currency of Environmentalist rhetoric. But like acid rain and global cooling, the precautionary principle seems to be disappearing from the Green lexicon. Increasingly, Environmentalists are drawing on the putative certainties of science – “The debate is over”, “The science is in” – rather than its inherent provisionality, to support their politics.

Take Naomi Oreskes’ belief that prominent denialists who created the “tobacco strategy” are now involved in undermining the scientific case for action on climate change, by “creating” doubt.

In 1979, Fredrick Seitz became an advisor to the R.J. Reynolds Corporation. His job was to direct a medical research program to confound the links between tobacco and cancer. Between 1975 and 1989 RJR Nabisco Company, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spent $45 million on this program. And from 1978 onwards, Seitz was its director. The focus of the program was to (quote) identify highly promising young investigators who are underfunded at present, and to fund them to do research that could be then used to argue that the scientific evidence was uncertain. 

What Oreskes seems to forget is that doubt, rather than being generated by the “denialists”, has long been at the very core of environmental politics. Consider the following statement, which is part of the 1992 Rio Declaration, agreed at the Earth Summit…

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

It is even more interesting in the light of Oreskes’ claims that scientific certainty on global warming had been achieved well before 1992:

If scientists understood in 1979 that global warming was going to happen, and if they knew by the early 1990s that it was starting to happen, and if our first president Bush signed the framework convention [at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio], why are we still here, in 2007, still arguing about whether global warming is even happening? 

Article 3 of that declaration states:

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this, such policies and measures should take into account different socio-economic contexts, be comprehensive, cover all relevant sources, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and adaptation, and comprise all economic sectors. Efforts to address climate change may be carried out cooperatively by interested Parties. 

Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.

The Environmentalist narrative of catastrophe, doom, and apocalypse, once given superficial scientific plausibility (in that science cannot exclude the possibility of such things happening – which it never could), provides doubt and uncertainty about the security of the future, which in turn provides political momentum and legitimacy for environmental policies. For example, we wrote back in November about how the language used in the IPCC AR4 synthesis report was taken out of context. The IPCC report said:

Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands. Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales, but more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded. 

The fact that “more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded” means little more than “we don’t know”. Yet as we said at the time, this highly ambiguous statement made it into the headlines – with the help of senior IPCC members – as a statement that ‘The IPCC states that climate change is “unequivocal” and may bring “abrupt and irreversible” impacts’. In other words, it was not what the IPCC knew which was making the headlines, it was what the IPCC didn’t know. This is reflected in an article by Oreskes in July 2006 in the LA Times.

None of this is to say that there are no uncertainties left — there are always uncertainties in any live science. Agreeing about the reality and causes of current global warming is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. There is continuing debate in the scientific community over the likely rate of future change: not “whether” but “how much” and “how soon.” And this is precisely why we need to act today: because the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become, and the harder it will be to solve. 

What matters to Oreskes is not the substance of scientific understanding, but an isolated, binary fact that “climate change is happening”. From here, “climate change” can mean anything. Once it has been established as a “fact”, it doesn’t matter what science says, because the doubt incubates the imagination better than certainty, and prohibits scientific expertise from undermining the power of the nightmare.

So is there really a difference between the application of doubt by the warmers, and by the tobacco strategists? The warmers use doubt about future security, while the tobacconists – as they are depicted by Oreskes – doubt that the science is sufficiently complete to make statements about the security of the future. The two “sides” Oreskes invents only differ in how best to respond to the same doubt. The dichotomy that Oreskes asks us to consider is not which argument is more sound, but which is safer, given the honesty of the parties in question. Oreskes invents an opposition and an argument for them, in order for the precautionary principle to look sensible by contrast, because scientific “fact” is not something Oreskes even has
time for.

In a 2004 study, Science and public policy: what’s proof got to do with it? Oreskes writes,

In recent years, it has become common for opponents of environmental action to argue that the scientific basis for purported harms is uncertain, unreliable, and fundamentally unproven. In response, many scientists believe that their job is to provide the “proof” that society needs. Both the complaint and the response are misguided. In all but the most trivial cases, science does not produce logically indisputable proofs about the natural world. At best it produces a robust consensus based on a process of inquiry that allows for continued scrutiny, re-examination, and revision. Within a scientific community, different individuals may weigh evidence differently and adhere to different standards of demonstration, and these differences are likely to be amplified when the results of inquiry have political, religious, or economic ramifications. In such cases, science can play a role by providing informed opinions about the possible consequences of our actions (or inactions), and by monitoring the effects of our choices. 

Oreskes appear to want things both ways. On the one hand, she claims that there is scientific certainty, which is being undermined by tobacconists. But on the other, she claims that scientific certainty is not a necessary requirement for action on climate change, and that no such thing exists. The consequence of this strategy is that the doubt is used to close down the possibility of any approach to climate problems other than mitigation – we have to constantly mitigate against the worst imaginable scenario. (Even though, ironically, great doubt surrounds whether such a strategy would actually have the effect intended.)

A last thing to consider is what certainty might do to Environmentalism. If we really were able to determine what climate problems exist in the future, we would be able to respond efficiently, taking into account both the costs and the benefits of changing the way we live either to adapt to our new circumstances, or mitigating to avoid them. This would deprive the environmental movement of the thing which drives it: fear. Such a loss would destroy Environmentalism. The preoccupation with worst-case scenarios generates legitimacy for Environmentalism only because science is unable to rule out the possibilities that green imaginations generate. Doubt is the fuel of Environmentalism.

The precautionary principle thrives beneath the surface of contemporary eco-rhetoric about the consensus. It’s just that it’s very hard to talk about that at the same time that you’re banging on about how the science is settled.

More Geometric Congruence from the Poorly Physician

We have reported before how climate alarmists seek to draw parallels between the shape of arguments made by the morally reprehensible, and climate change “denialists“. At the same time, some like to make analogies of climate scientists and physicians. Andrew Dessler, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, former scientific advisor to the Clinton Whitehouse, and climate change activist blogger at Gristmill does both.

After spotting an advert [PDF] in the New York Times for the Indoor Tanning Association’s campaign website, sunlightscam.com, Dessler compares the strategies employed by the Indoor Tanning Association, and the deniers:

The association between sun exposure and skin cancer is every bit as robust as the association between greenhouse gases and climate change. And that means it’s pretty damn robust. What’s interesting is that the Indoor Tanning Association seems to have virtually plagiarized the strategy incorporated by tobacco companies and global-warming denialists. The phrases “hypothetical risks” and “no compelling scientific evidence,” along with efforts to smear the mainstream scientific community with accusations of corruption, are right out of the global-warming denialists‘ handbook. 

This really underscores the effectiveness of the strategy. Regardless of how strong the evidence is — whether it’s the connection between smoking and lung cancer, exposure to sunlight and skin cancer, or greenhouse gases and climate change — it seems possible to create doubt in the general public’s mind with a concerted PR campaign.

What is interesting about Dessler’s inability to discuss global warming without recourse to crude analogy is that it reveals a strategy of his own, and the poverty of climate change “ethics”. Climate alarmists find it so difficult to connect their arguments to people that they need to seek abstract parallels in the structure of dubious arguments, and those of their opponents, despite their being totally unrelated. Thus we see Naomi Oreskes struggling to identify continuity between the legal defence offered by tobacco companies and the inertia of the environmental movement in the USA. And we see Marc D. Davidson attempting to diminish the moral character of climate change “deniers” by comparing their arguments to the arguments in favour of the continuation of slavery made nearly 200 years ago.

These are sure signs of the exhaustion of the climate change argument. It borrows the moral high-ground from history, but struggles to make the moral case for ‘action’ on its own terms; climate change denial is the equivalent of being in favour of the slave trade. The climate change argument borrows scientific credibility from medicine; climate change is like cancer, and climate scientists are like doctors. This unsophisticated reasoning isn’t designed to shed any light on the matters at hand. It merely uses this borrowed moral and scientific certainty to position climate alarmists on the “good” side.

Pesky Oreskes

And so to the 2nd (and quite possibly the final) part in our mini-series of posts about videos that really annoy us: “The American Denial of Global Warming

We find ourselves somewhat obsessed with this one. It’s a lecture by Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at the University of California, San Diego, that’s been doing the rounds for a while. It’s a polemic against US climate sceptics, who Oreskes believes are ideologically and financially motivated individuals, who have successfully impeded the dissemination of the “scientific message” about global warming.

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Oreskes kicks off with statistics from a recent poll which suggest that “72% of Americans [are] completely or mostly convinced that global warming is happening” and that “sixty-two percent… believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. This shows, says Oreskes, that “the scientific message is getting through to the American people.” Except that it doesn’t. Because the message that “life on Earth” hangs in the balance, such that it faces “major disruptions” unless we take “immediate and drastic action” is not a scientific one. You certainly won’t find it in any IPCC reports. Two minutes into a lecture about how climate sceptics misrepresent the the science for political ends, and Oreskes has herself done precisely that.

Her next offering is an “unequivocal” statement from the IPCC TAR (2001):

“Human activities… are modifying the concentrations of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions”

But here is the entire paragraph, from which she quotes selectively:

Human activities — primarily burning of fossil fuels and changes in land cover — are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents or properties of the surface that absorb or scatter radiant energy. The WGI contribution to the TAR—Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis—found, “In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” Future changes in climate are expected to include additional warming, changes in precipitation patterns and amounts, sea-level rise, and changes in the frequency and intensity of some extreme events.

“Most” and “likely”. “Unequivocal”. Spot the difference. Undaunted, Oreskes quotes the IPCC’s 1995 Second Assessment report to show that “in fact, the scientific community had actually already come to a consensus that global warming was beginning to happen in 1995”:

“The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human impact [sic] on global climate”

And here is the full section from which she quotes:

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.

In 1995, the scientific consensus, if that is what the IPCC represents, was little more than “we don’t know”. But, according to Oreskes, the consensus is even older than that. She quotes from a press release that announced the publication in 1979 of the US National Research Council’s Charney Report:

A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use

which is, she says, a

very clear statement of what it was that scientists felt they had come to understand. In short, there was already a consensus in 1979 that global warming would happen. And that it was not a small issue.

See what she did there? The fact that a 1979 press release used the word “consensus” (or more specifically, the words “indicates a consensus”) means that, in 1979, there was a consensus. Hey, it’s easy this history of science.

And who needs a consensus anyway? Lyndon B Johnson didn’t. His message to congress in 1965 (“in the days when politicians actually listened to scientists” says Oreskes) that “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels” demonstrates the gathering political momentum, she says. But here’s Johnson’s quote in its original context:

Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Entire regional airsheds, crop plant environments, and river basins are heavy with noxious materials. Motor vehicles and home heating plants, municipal dumps and factories continually hurl pollutants into the air we breathe. Each day almost 50,000 tons of unpleasant, and sometimes poisonous, sulfur dioxide are added to the atmosphere, and our automobiles produce almost 300,000 tons of other pollutants.

Johnson’s 5,500 word message contained just that one reference to carbon. And nothing about climate change. It talks instead about clean air, disposal of waste, pesticides, that sort of thing. But Oreskes makes it look as though anthropogenic climate change was high on the political agenda 40 years ago.

The scientific case really firmed up, she says, in the 1970s. And importantly, she insists, the science was not yet politicised. She cites three studies, including one from the JASON Committee in 1979, which was commissioned by the US government amid a fuel crisis to analyse the environmental repercussions of a switch from oil to coal. The report featured an early climate model. The abstract of the paper says:

Calculation with this zonally averaged model shows an increase of average surface temperature of 2.4 deg for a doubling of CO2. The equatorial temperature increases by 0.7 K, while the poles warm up by 10 to 12 K. Effects of the warming of the climate are discussed.

Burning coal would exacerbate the problem, they concluded. We resist the temptation to shout “it’s all about oil”. And of course, Oreskes is guided only by the cold, hard facts of science. She presents a graphic from NOAA, to show how the JASON report’s predictions have been confirmed by subsequent data:

This graphic does more than merely support the model, she says – it shows that the prediction has come true to a “startling degree”:

They also predicted an effect which we now call ‘polar amplifaction’; that the effect would be greatest at the poles, maybe as much as 10-12 degrees incre
ase in temperature at the poles, for doubling of CO2. So, in other words, four or five times as great as the global average. Well, I want to jump ahead in my narrative for just a moment, because it’s not that common that scientific predictions actually come true. Or at least not that often that they come true to a high degree of specificity. But this is an example of a prediction that has come true to a startling degree. So this is a map recently released by NOAA that shows the mean surface temperature increase compared to a base period 1951-1980. But not just average for the whole world, but showing you how the changes are different in different regions. So the global mean increase for this period, or now, compared to this period is half a degree centigrade. But look at the polar regions; look at Alaska. The increase in Alaska is 2.1 degrees. That’s four times the global mean. That’s exactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979.

“[E]xactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979” our collective arses. Were Alaska representative of the entire Polar regions, she might have a point. But it isn’t. Most of the Northern Polar region’s temperature anomaly is +1.2-1.6 or +0.8-1.2. And we can see there is just one small area of the Southern Polar region which is warmer than the global mean. Oreskes has selected an unrepresentative worst-case to support her point. From the evidence she presents, it would be equally justified to argue that the model predictions were wrong to a “startling degree” on the basis that parts of Africa, Asia and South America have seen temperature rises as big as those in Alaska. (And remember that the 2D projection used in the figure artificially increases the apparent size of Alaska compared to the Tropics.)

Anyway, the story goes that the Charney and JASON reports, among others, grabbed the attention of the White House. The IPCC was established in 1988, and in 1992 George Bush Sr. signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set the stage for the Kyoto Protocol. Mother Nature was going to be OK. Except that then it all started to go horribly wrong. Oreskes wonders why:

If scientists understood in 1979 that global warming was going to happen, and if they knew by the early 1990s that it was starting to happen, and if our first president Bush signed the framework convention, why are we still here, in 2007, still arguing about whether global warming is even happening?

This question is the subject of the second half of Oreskes’ talk. In her own words, “the first half of this talk was about the truth; the second half is about the denial”.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so, really trying to understand what has happened here in the United States in the past fifteen or twenty years and I believe the answer is explained by one very strange poll result. The fact is that although the American people are now convinced that global warming is indeed happening, more than half the American people still think that scientists are still arguing about it.

This apparent contradiction is not, says Oreskes, the result of disagreements between scientists (as we can see do exist) and/or disagreements between the scientific predictions and observations (ditto). Nope…

We, the American people, think that scientists are still arguing about it because this is in fact what we have been repeatedly told.

That is to say that what the American public are being told is false, and they believe it, and this belief is reflected in the poll. Oreskes says that the sort of falsehoods peddled

include that there is no proof – that the science is uncertain. That there’s no consensus – that scientists are divided. That if warming is happening, it’s not anthropogenic, it’s just natural variability. If it is anthropogenic, it isn’t necessarily bad. That we can adapt to any changes that might occur. And that controlling greenhouse gases emissions would cost jobs, harm, or even destroy the U.S. economy.

Having just failed so spectacularly to prove the robustness of the consensus, Oreskes might wonder why anyone should find any of these challenges particularly outlandish. (And how can there possibly be a scientific consensus that we cannot adapt to any changes that might occur, or that controlling greenhouse gas emissions would not cause economic harm?) But instead, she asks: “When did scientific uncertainty become a political tactic?” (When surely a more pertinent question for an historian of science is: When did certainty start having anything to do with science?)

She tells us that the history of denialism is as long as that of the consensus on climate change. And at the heart of the denial industry is the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.

The Institute was founded, according to Oreskes, to defend Ronald Reagan’s plans for the SDI “Star Wars” project. Members of the GCMI would make public statements in the mass media, to show that scientists were not “unified in their opposition, but in fact were arguing about it”, and would threaten to sue under a Fairness Doctrine that required balance in the media at the time. She asks:

If you have 6500 physicists opposing a program [SDI], and three supporting it, then what kind of balance would it be if you gave equal time to the three?

By the 1990s, however, the cold war was over, leaving the GCMI without a purpose. They employed their skills instead to casting doubt on the mainstream science of global warming, says Oreskes. To illustrate the point, she shows a graphic from a 2004 study by Boykoff and Boykoff of global warming press coverage between 1988 and 2002.

There is a number of problems with this approach. First, the study looked at only four publications – NY Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Such prestige publications are far more likely to report cutting-edge, controversial research, and are more likely to seek a counter opinion so as not to insult their audience. Second, this shows just one level of media bias – of which there are many (like which research gets covered in the first place. And indeed, the Boycoff study is not without it’s own biases. For example, it tells us on page 1 that, “The continuous juggling act journalists engage in, often mitigates against meaningful, accurate, and urgent coverage of the issue of global warming.”) Third, the study looks for agreement between the thrust of an article and the “consensus position” that AGW is real and is happening. In which case, a story reporting James Hansen’s claim that global warming will “result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century” will be put in the AGW dominant/exclusive categories, while a story along the lines of “global warming unlikely to cause significant problems to New York City in the near future” will find itself in one of the sceptic categories – even though the latter is closer than the former to the IPCC position. The statement “global warming is happening” simply isn’t sophisticated enough itself to provide anything meaningful to measure statements by. The analysis lacks any measure of how far a story departs from the IPCC – in either direction. Fourth, it assumes that the “global warming is happening” side has not engaged with tactics of its own. Yet, as we can see, the unsophisticated “global warming is happening” statement can turn barking mad statements about climate science into truth, while assigning informed caution to the “denier” camp. Is that n
ot a tactic? It certainly looks tactical. And, of course, the message that we’re all going to die, because something really really horrible is about to happen is also a tactic – one that we have referred to here as “the politics of fear”. Such tactics ask us to suspend our judgement because the consequences are just too great. Yet Oreskes shows that, if we suspend judgment, anything can pass as evidence. Fifth, Oreskes uses the statistics from the report with no historical perspective. Another graphic from the same study reveals the more interesting picture that, from about 1996, the number of “balanced” articles is roughly equal to the number of stories which push the AGW line:

Oreskes then says that it is an irony that the Reagan Administration had been dismantling the Fairness Doctrine, “which it viewed as unnecessary government intervention in communication markets”. Huh? Yes, it is ironic, but only because it undermines her own argument that there is a cabal of Republicans bent on distorting the scientific message.

“As the science became firmer”, says Oreskes, the “attacks became harsher and more personal”. She highlights a “highly personal attack” against IPCC lead author on the 1995 IPCC SAR, Benjamin Santer, by Frederick Seitz (GCMI Chairman), William Nierenberg, and S. Fred Singer, who, in an open letter to the IPCC…

accused Santer of making “unauthorized” changes to the IPCC reports to downplay doubts, make science seem firmer than it was

That’s a personal attack? As it happens, it is true that Santer made changes to the report subsequent to its approval, but before its publication. The letter claimed that Santer had removed the following three clauses, which had been agreed to by the authors, reviewers and governments:

“None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gasses.”

“No Study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic causes.”

“Any claims of positive detection of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced.”

This “personal attack” was neither groundless nor personal. Santer took responsibility for the changes, though it emerged that he had been “prevailed upon” to make the chapter consistent with the Summary for Policymakers (a point acknowledged by Fred Singer). Oreskes goes on to claim that the alteration was legitimate and within the peer-review process, as though it were the final word. But as Fred Seitz has pointed out:

Dr. Santer says that “IPCC procedures require changes in response to comments,” Of course they do, but not after the governments have accepted the final draft. The fact is that someone connected with the presentation of the published version — presumably Dr. Santer and others — rewrote basic technical material in Chapter 8 with the result that scientific doubts about man-made global warming were suppressed. Clearly, governments will have to look elsewhere than the IPCC for sound science on climate change.

Whether or not the revision was legitimate in terms of the IPCC process, it reveals something rather murky. Oreskes, meanwhile, sets the legitimate dispute up as an attempt to smear honest scientists, who had no questions to answer. She then proceeds to tell us “who Fredrick Seitz was”… Beginning with his academic credentials, and a few of his career highlights, culminating in his last paying job…

In 1979, Fredrick Seitz became an advisor to the R.J. Reynolds Corporation. His job was to direct a medical research program to confound the links between tobacco and cancer. Between 1975 and 1989 RJR Nabisco Company, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spent $45 million on this program. And from 1978 onwards, Seitz was its director. The focus of the program was to (quote) identify highly promising young investigators who are underfunded at present, and to fund them to do research that could be then used to argue that the scientific evidence was uncertain.

The next few minutes are spent going over old documents and speeches to show that the point of the scientific research was to build a case against litigation in the US courts. The important thing about this, Oreskes says, is that it shows that science was used not to show how tobacco was safe, but to create reasonable doubt. She then moves on to Fred Singer, and his work in challenging various “consensus” positions on environmental issues, and “defending tobacco”. Her point, it seems, is to show that in the cases of acid rain, CFCs, and environmental tobacco smoke, these men used the same argument: the science was uncertain, concerns were exaggerated, technology will solve the problem, no need for government interference. This is what Oreskes calls the “Tobacco Strategy”.

But why would they do this – attack science, defend tobacco – Oreskes wonders. It’s politics, she says. They are against regulation. It’s the ideology of laissez-faire. Earlier in their careers, when these men were working to defend Regan’s SDI program, they were driven, according to Oreskes, by anti-communism. They object to regulations and environmental laws because they represent “creeping communism”. Testing the men’s actions and words against the maxim that “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”, Oreskes concludes that it is indeed vice that Singer and Seitz are engaged in. They do not “make a political argument on political grounds”, she complains, and they “disguised a political debate as a scientific one”. She charges them with misrepresenting the science, confusing the American people, and, in the case of climate change, delaying political action on one of the most pressing global issues of our time.

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.

In Oreskes’ world, a warm Alaska is enough to prove the 1979 theory of Polar Amplification, a single graph from a biased study is enough to show that the media is dominated by a secret political agenda, and the dealings of two dodgy scientists is apparently enough to undermine the good work of climate science in the eyes of the public – a public that she sees as an unthinking, uncritical mob who just sit there swallowing any old rubbish that is thrown at them. Oreskes accuses others of “distorting science”, ”
tactics” and “political motivation”. But her argument is all three. She lies to show that others have lied. She distorts the science to show that others have distorted the science. She points to others’ political agendas to conceal her own. She does not search for agreement between scientists about theories, and she does not look for agreements between theories and observations to prove a consensus. It doesn’t matter to Oreskes what the science is, or whether it can be verified, nor even if it is consistent. She is only interested in consensus. And consensus is about politics, not science.

But despite the onslaught from the influential denialists, the fact remains that – according to Oreskes’ own figures – 62% of the US public “believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. If any distorted message is getting through to the American poublic, obviously it does not come from the denier camp. Oreskes’ problem is not that science gets distorted for political ends, but that that distortion is not always in the direction that she would prefer. One can only assume that Oreskes would be happier only if the message that was getting through was even more unrepresentative – and even more hysterical – than it already is.