Only Four Years Left to Save Environmentalism

Another sure sign that environmentalists are struggling to sustain a rational basis for their influence emerged last week. The pages of the Observer featured the opinion of NASA activist/scientist James Hansen in two articles [1 , 2] and an editorial.

Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen who last week warned only urgent action by the new president could halt the devastating climate change that now threatens Earth. Crucially, that action will have to be taken within Obama’s first administration, he added.

Of all the hopes pinned on Obama, ‘saving the world’ has to be the most revealing of the hoper, be it the Observer Journalist, the Observer, or Hansen.

As we pointed out last Thursday, the environmental movement’s only leverage is the prospect of catastrophe. It has no popular appeal in any real sense. So when it appears that governments are ‘on-message’, or in any way sympathetic to its concerns, the only way to sustain its undemocratic and unaccountable influence is to escalate the sense of urgency, or their function will become redundant.

This suggests that the hoper’s nervousness is owed, not to material facts about the state of the world – obviously – but their inability to explain the world, and their tenuous grip on the public agenda.

As an apparently sympathetic Obama steps to the fold, so we see the environmental protagonists escalating the sense of crisis.

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead.”

After eight years of opposing moves to combat climate change, thanks to the policies of President George Bush, the US had given itself no time for manoeuvre, he said. Only drastic, immediate change can save the day and those changes proposed by Hansen – who appeared in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and is a winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s top conservation award – are certainly far-reaching.

So where did this ‘four years’ figure come from?

In 2006, the same Hansen had argued that

“I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most,” Hansen said Wednesday at the Climate Change Research Conference in California’s state capital.

Less than two and a half years later, the ten years is reduced to four years.

Shortly after Hansen made his ten year claim, UK and Dutch premiers Tony Blair and Jan Peter Balkenende wrote in a letter to the EU that

The science of climate change has never been clearer. Without further action, scientists now estimate we may be heading for temperature rises of at least 3-4C above pre-industrial levels. We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points. These would have serious consequences for our economic growth prospects, the safety of our people and the supply of resources, most notably energy. So we must act quickly.

The fact that science hasn’t – indeed, cannot – identify ‘catastrophic tipping points’ doesn’t bother politicians who use science in this way. The concept of a tipping point is only useful to politicians – it has little scientific meaning. It is a gun to your head. Do you trust the authority of the man holding it, or do you challenge it? If you don’t do as he says and you’re wrong, you might trigger the tipping point. You lose. But if you’re right to challenge it, the trust we have in politicians, and politics built around the myth of catastrophe itself disintegrates. You lose. Either way, the threat is that society breaks down, because either the climate will change, destroying our ‘fragile relationship’ with nature, or the myths on which authority is established are ripped from beneath it. This is the politics of fear.

Greens have presented themselves as radical alternatives to mainstream politics. But they use exactly the same language. In November 2007, we reported Caroline Lucas’s attempts to use ‘catastrophic tipping points’ to elevate herself.

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

This was the second time we had picked up on Lucas’s claim that the planet had a deadline. Justifying her claim that climate change denial was equivalent to holocaust denial, she had said previously that

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

Last year, vulcanologist Bill McQuire announced that we had just ‘seven years to save the planet‘ in a book of the same name. Amazon describe it thus,

‘Bill McGuire succinctly tackles a series of green queries… the book is an excellent first stop for getting clued up about climate change. ‘ METRO ‘..author Bill McGuire points out that to salvage a civilisation capable of maintaining a semblance of organisation approximate to what we have now, we must achieve a near-zero carbon economy by 2050’. GREENEVENTS ‘McGuire makes telling points about the size of the challenge we face if we are to escape some of the nastier effects of climate change. And his sense of urgency is well-placed.’ FOCUS

(Where would McGuire be, if it weren’t for the end of the world? Certainly not making numerous appearances on TV shows, or selling books. Doom is big business.)

In August last year, policy director and head of the climate change programme at the New Economics Foundation, Andrew Simms announced that we had just ‘100 months to save the world‘.

So, how exactly do we arrive at the ticking clock of 100 months? It’s possible to estimate the length of time it will take to reach a tipping point. To do so you combine current greenhouse gas concentrations with the best estimates for the rates at which emissions are growing, the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases allowable to forestall potentially irreversible changes to the climate system, and the effect of those environmental feedbacks. We followed the latest data and trends for carbon dioxide, then made allowances for all human interferences that influence temperatures, both those with warming and cooling effects. We followed the judgments of the mainstream climate science community, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on what it will take to retain a good chance of not crossing the critical threshold of the Earth’s average surface temperature rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels. We were cautious in several ways, optimistic even, and perhaps too much so. A rise of 2C may mask big problems that begin at a lower level of warming. For example, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is more than likely to be triggered by a local warming of 2.7C, which could correspond to a global mean temperature increase of 2C or less. The disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could correspond to a sea-level rise of up to 7 metres.

Is it four years or is it six? Or is it ten or fifteen? The tipping point is being used by everyone. The only thing that differs is when this tipping point is supposed to occur.

The idea of a ‘tipping point’ began as scientific speculation that climate systems ‘flip’ from one ‘state’ to another, rather than change as one variable – the concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere – changes. This idea armed environmentalists with the threat that a changing climate would suddenly – rather than over the course of millenia – reach a point where climate change was so rapid that natural processes on which human society depends would in turn collapse, leaving us starved of resources, and unable to cope with the new conditions.

The problem for environmentalists is that no such ‘tipping point’ has been identitifed by climate science, and the social consequences of moving past tipping points remain poorly defined. The NEF, for example, cannot point to any scientific literature which identifies tipping points. Instead, their 100 month calculation is formed from a variety of headline statements and studies taken from here, there, and everywhere. (They invent a tipping point).

Take for example, the figure of 2 degrees which Simms says is the point which must not be exceeded. The more technical document accompanying his article and campaign website says that this figure,

… is the maximum acceptable level of temperature rise agreed by the European Union and others as necessary to retain reasonable confidence of preventing uncontrollable and ultimately catastrophic warming.

The report doesn’t say where the rationale behind the figure of 2 degrees can be located, nor why we should take the EU’s word for it. Moreover, what is the ‘reasonable confidence’ that the NEF want to ‘retain’ about the future? It implies that what lies beyond 2 degrees is not ‘reasonable confidence’ of there being a catastrophe, but less certainty about there not being one. In other words, it says nothing about climate – 2 degrees is not a tipping point, but an arbitrary point, beyond which we can be less certain about the end of the world than before it. We might just as well observe that ‘catastrophe’ is less likely before a 1000 degree rise in global temperature than after it.

We’ve pointed out before that this is ‘politics by numbers’. In this game, all you need to do to elevate yourself over your opponents is add one to their offer. This done by commissioning someone with the appropriate letters after their name to do back-of-an-envelope calculations using the figures which have already been ‘established’ by other players in the game. It is voodoo science, and it only means anything if you already actually believe it.

Once you have performed the ritual which establishes the new magic numbers, you can present your manifesto. And so it is with the NEF. Their ‘Green New Deal‘ document is

Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programme launched in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, this modernised version is designed to tackle our current crash: the interlinked crises of climate change, recession and energy depletion.

It goes on…

The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’: a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil. It is increasingly clear that these three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, with potentially devastating consequences.

As we pointed out recently, one of those three crunch factors – high oil prices – is already a non fact. Like Hansen, the NEF and the Green New Deal Group elevate themselves with these kind of statements. But soon their forecasts will catch up with them.

Following Obama’s inauguration, and the NEF’s attempts to cast their ideas as the contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal it seems appropriate to answer Hansen’s demands to the new president with words from Roosevelt’s inuagural address.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Obama himself mentions fear:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

If Obama is really to choose ‘hope over fear’, he will have to challenge the influence of the likes of Hansen. Can he do it? Well, we hope so.

Under the Moon: Gore's Giant Limp for Mankind

Al Gore announced his strategy for powering the USA entirely from ‘renewable’ resources -a mixture of solar and wind – by a decade from now. (Are the sun and wind ‘renewable’? How?)

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The ten-year time-span, and the ‘big project’ are borrowed from JF Kennedy’s speech announcing the plan to put a man on the moon. Gore makes no secret of it, indeed, he is overtly trying to capture the same spirit, and sense of historical moment by paraphrasing Kennedy.

But there exist many differences between Gore and Kennedy, and their speeches.

The first is that Gore is not the president of the USA. He’s making grand speeches as though he were. But merely fancying himself as the president of the USA and flattering himself with allusions to Kennedy’s great speeches does not make him either. The question has to be asked; who does he think he is? He has left politics, yet appears to be setting the agenda that even McCain and now ‘Libertarian’ Bob Barr seem to be dancing to. It is a symptom of these times that it is pressure from outside the political process which sets the political agenda. Today’s Western politicians seem incapable of setting agendas, and instead merely respond to the world, hoping that crisis (environment, terror, pandemic, etc) and being in bed with NGOs will lend them legitimacy. Those who attach themselves to the word ‘progressive’ may see Gore’s and environmentalism’s influence on the political process as a Good Thing. But the truth is that, even if they are right about the destructive power of anthropogenic CO2, the political agenda being set so comprehensively by people without mandates is not what happens in a democracy. Gore’s is not an idea which will be contested democratically. It has not emerged from the kind of political activism which used to represent people’s interests, up from the ‘grass roots’. You will notice that Gore has not taken his environmental zeal to the ballot box. If climate change truly were the problem that the world faces, and if there truly were a grass roots mass movement to stop it, the ballot box would be a good place to start ‘saving the planet’. But as European Greens have shown, even weak environmentalism – never mind deep ecology – is simply not popular. What this reveals about politics in the West is that its elites suffer from an unmitigated disconnect with the public. Barr, McCain and Obama cannot challenge Gore, not because Gore has established a transformative political vision and a powerful following, but because they too lack both. In 2005, Gore, citing the disaster in New Orleans, gave a speech around the theme of the proverb ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’. Yet Gore thrives in these circumstances. It is only through being outside politics that he can influence it. It is only by exploiting the widespread cynicism towards politics – rather than by reinvigorating it – that Gore can position himself as a key player. By attaching themselves to this cause, which they sell as ‘above’ politics, presidential hopefuls imagine that they can escape the problems that that cynicism creates for them. His campaign slogan – ‘We Can Solve Climate Change’ – suggests that the impotent political process cannot. It says that ‘by working together, we can make it a priority for government and business’. This small constituency can make a bigger noise outside politics. With hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than people, at his disposal, Gore’s small movement can amplify his message, and achieve the effect of a mass political organisation, without ever actually achieving it.

Gore is not the first to make the claim that ‘climate change is our moon-landing’. In November, 2006, Tony Blair, citing the Stern Report’s findings, told the Royal Society in a speech titled Britain’s path to the future – lit by the brilliant light of science that,

The science of climate change is the moon landing of our day. This is idealism in a technical language. The scientists and the idealists will, once again, be the same people. The discoveries in the laboratory will be matters of life and death. Nothing could be more vital, nothing could be more exciting.

Of course, even Environmentalists do not regard Tony Blair as the saviour of the climate. Their rhetoric may be identical, yet he was not celebrated as an eco-hero by Environmentalists as Gore is. Like Gore, Blair hoped to create a place for himself in history, in spite of his being one of the emptiest voids ever to occupy 10 Downing Street. For example, in one of his most vain moments, following a peace deal made in Northern Ireland, he said ‘this is no time for soundbites, but I feel the hand of history on my shoulder’. Blair’s conceited determination to be remembered as a history-maker was well out of kilter with his ability to actually make it. Lacking the means and opportunities to make history then, Blair, like Gore, merely borrows from history. The subtext of ‘climate change is today’s moon-landing’ is ‘I am today’s Kennedy’. Gore’s and Blair’s speeches, seek not to change the world, but to elevate themselves to the stature of world-changing historical figures. But in Blair’s speech, there is no sign of an understanding of why Kennedy felt that science was key to transcending the political differences which defined the world at the time; he merely uses ‘science’ to create a (bogus) imperative to do so. In other words, science is being used to set, not achieve the agenda. Nor does he offer any explanation as to how and why such idealism had disappeared from the political landscape. Nor does he offer an argument as to how it might be injected back into public life. Blair, like Gore, thought that by presenting the ‘climate crisis’ in terms of the crisis precipitated by the cold war, and presenting the ‘scientific solution’ to that crisis as the means to achieve global cooperation, he would have, like Kennedy, a safe place in the history books. A giant leap. Except that what Gore and Blair have offered is not a political vision of the future powered by science, but merely cargo-cult politics. Like the islanders described by Richard Feynman, who believed that if you performed the rituals that they observed at an air force base, you would bring airplanes loaded with goods to your improvised airstrip, Blair and Gore appear to believe that, to be remembered as a great leader, you just have to go through the motions. But they are poseurs. They put Kennedy on a pedestal, merely so that they can pretend that they should take their place beside him. In much the same way, Blair also likened Saddam Hussain to Hitler, not because he was the leader of an emerging superpower, with the means to execute a global war – clearly Saddam lacked any such power. The purpose of the comparison was to make his part in the morality play – Winston Churchill – more convincing.

The science which Kennedy wished to use to liberate the world from the geopolitics of the time sits in contrast to the ambitions of those who embrace today’s ‘scientific’ conception of the future. It is not the same future. It is a future dominated by an ideology of restraint, of lowered expectations, and of dampened ambitions. Kennedy, on the other hand, had in mind a future of plenty. Today’s politicians instead use science to justify their instructions that we REDUCE! RE-USE! RECYCLE!’ They tell us we are not to use our cars, and that flying is ‘unethical’… unless it is them who are flying, of course. Kennedy wanted to transcend the problems of the age by appealing to interests that people across the world shared, in spite of their differences.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.

Now, however, that pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, commerce, and our common interests are perceived as the problem. Our increasing material liberty has, according to the likes of Blair and Gore, caused the problems that the world faces. Instead of science being used to liberate, it is now to be used to restrain our ambitions, to regulate our lifestyles, and to give a new authoritarianism political legitimacy. In fact, many Environmentalists today regard the moon landing as a wasteful folly, and an environmentally-destructive waste of space.

There is one further, very significant difference between Gore’s and Kennedy’s speeches. Gore’s vision of a ‘renewable’ USA is predicated on the imminent catastrophe which awaits if we do not follow his instructions. It is the gun to America’s head. Kennedy’s plan to send men to the moon had no such basis.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

Kennedy believed that humanity’s common interests and the pursuit of knowledge transcended geo-political differences. Thus, by advancing humanity though science and the arts, and trade, peace might be achieved. In contrast, the folly of trade, arts and commerce are, in Gore’s perspective, the problem. Kennedy’s speech is an appeal to human spirit; Gore’s is a rejection of it. Environmentalism seeks to control human spirit for the ‘higher’ goal of ecological stability. It claims that our interests are, by dint of our dependence on natural processes, second to nature’s. Kennedy asked us to understand nature to use it to our advantage and advancement. Gore asks us to submit to it.

History lends today’s political players crutches to prop themselves up by. Alluding to WWII, public figures demand that we get on a ‘war footing’ to limit our consumption by ‘make do and mend’, as one British public information slogan said. To question this is to demand to be judged by that historical absolute; holocaust denial. To be a denier is, according to the likes of Hansen, to be guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’. The need for such crutches stems from the fact that today’s politicians have no legs to stand on, and environmentalism cannot produce its own history.

POSTSCRIPT:

You could not make it up… Except that someone has… As the post above was being typed, this popped into our inbox from the BBC website:

A “Green New Deal” is needed to solve current problems of climate change, energy and finance, a report argues.

According to the Green New Deal Group, humanity only has 100 months to prevent dangerous global warming.

Its proposals include major investment in renewable energy and the creation of thousands of new “green collar” jobs.

The name is taken from President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, launched 75 years ago to bring the US out of the Great Depression.

The search for historical landmarks by which to give gravity to the climate issue reveals its total hollowness.