The IPCC and the Melting Glaciers Story

This is a big post in two parts. The first is our take on the current story about the Himalayan glaciers. The second is a similar case of non-scientific research being passed off as ‘science’.

A story in the Sunday Times demonstrates the murky nature of the process by which ‘scientific facts’ become established in the climate debate.

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

The No Scientist has, in recent years, become something of an organ of the environmental movement, abandoning cool, rational, empirical scientific detachment for high moral tones, shrill alarmist stories, and a rather one-sided treatment of both the politics and science of the climate debate. No surprises here – we’ve covered the NS’s appalling commentary in many previous posts. What is interesting is how the partiality of science journalists exists as part of its own positive-feedback mechanism, such that oversight turns into ‘scientific fact’. So how does a journalist’s credulousness actually produce ‘consensus science’?

The original article by the celebrated New Scientist environmental correspondent, Fred Pearce was published in 1999. It reported that,

“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating,” says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the chief author of the ICSI report. A typical example is the Gangorti glacier at the head of the River Ganges, which is retreating at a rate of 30 metres per year. Hasnain’s four-year study indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.”

In 2005, the WWF, published its report, An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China. It cited Pearce’s article.

The New Scientist magazine carried the article “Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities” in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”. The article also predicted that freshwater flow in rivers across South Asia will “eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages”.

In 2007, the IPCC cites the WWF

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

This process is what we have called, ‘Chinese Whispers’, after the party game of the same name. Ambiguity, caveats, and uncertainty get removed from scientific research through citation, especially across discipline areas, and when passed between the social and material sciences. Certainty is amplified; the context of scientific research is lost, rendering it meaningless. Why is the IPCC citing the WWF as a source of scientific data, when first, the WWF is neither a scientific, nor a research organisation, but has a specific agenda, and second, when it has the work of an entire working group (WGI) dedicated to providing the ‘scientific basis’, to call upon?

The Times quotes Pearce,

The IPCC’s reliance on Hasnain’s 1999 interview has been highlighted by Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist. Pearce said he rang Hasnain in India in 1999 after spotting his claims in an Indian magazine. Pearce said: “Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain. The report had not been peer reviewed or formally published in a scientific journal and it had no formal status so I reported his work on that basis.”

So Pearce apparently found the claims sufficiently interesting, even though they appeared to have no basis in science. Pearce continues:

“Since then I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt. However, he did make clear that his comments related only to part of the Himalayan glaciers. not the whole massif.”

It is not clear when, since 1999, Pearce found a copy of Hasnain’s report. We haven’t found any attempt to address his mistake. Reflecting on the error in a recent edition of the New Scientist, Pearce says,

Despite the 10-year-old New Scientist report being the only source, the claim found its way into the IPCC fourth assessment report published in 2007. Moreover the claim was extrapolated to include all glaciers in the Himalayas.

Writing on the BBC’s website, Indian Journalist, Pallava Bagla, points out that the IPCC reproduced the error,

The IPCC relied on three documents to arrive at 2035 as the “outer year” for shrinkage of glaciers.

They are: a 2005 World Wide Fund for Nature report on glaciers; a 1996 Unesco document on hydrology; and a 1999 news report in New Scientist.

Incidentally, none of these documents have been reviewed by peer professionals, which is what the IPCC is mandated to be doing.

Since Pearce’s mistake in 1999, he has written many books on the climate issue.

  • Last Generation – How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change
  • When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens When Our Water Runs Out?
  • Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes from
  • The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future
  • With Speed and Violence : Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
  • The Big Green Book
  • Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World
  • Fragile Earth: Views of a Changing World
  • Deep Jungle: Journey to the Heart of the Rainforest
  • Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization
  • Regis: Regional Climate Change Impact and Response Studies in East Anglia and North West England
  • Turning Up the Heat

Before his 1999 article, he penned,

  • Ian and Fred’s Big Green Book
  • Green Warriors: The People and the Politics behind the Environmental Revolution.
  • ADVENTURES AT THE ZOO
  • Turning Up The Heat – Our Perilous Future In The Global Greenhouse
  • Dammed, the:Rivers, Dams and the Coming World Water Crisis
  • Acid Rain (Penguin Special)
  • Turning Up the Heat: Our Perilous Future in the Global Greenhouse
  • Global Warming
  • Watershed: Collapse of Britain’s Water Supply
  • Greenprint for Action
  • Climate and Man: From the Ice Ages to the Global Greenhouse
  • Climate change impacts in the UK

It is inconceivable that as prolific a writer on the climate as Pearce can be unaware of the influence of his error. It is more than obvious that Pearce has a political agenda that exists prior to ‘the science’ he reports. This prior-ness is something we have emphasised here on Climate Resistance as fundamental to understanding the phenomenon of environmentalism: the disaster scenario is the premise of environmental politics, not the conclusion of environmental science. Once this premise is accepted, so to speak, a priori, the conclusion becomes a given; the ‘science’ is almost immaterial, it merely gives numbers to what is already given.

It does not stretch the imagination, then, to suggest that Pearce was happy to overlook the lack of scientific foundations in Hasnain’s 1999 report, and happy for the error to be amplified, and reproduced firstly by the WWF, and then by the IPCC.

Happy that is, until now. The 11 January New Scientist article, which carries his name, speaks about himself as “a journalist”, as though he had nothing to do with it.

However, the lead author of the IPCC chapter, Indian glaciologist Murari Lal, told New Scientist he “outright rejected” the notion that the IPCC was off the mark on Himalayan glaciers. “The IPCC authors did exactly what was expected from them,” he says.“We relied rather heavily on grey [not peer-reviewed] literature, including the WWF report,” Lal says. “The error, if any, lies with Dr Hasnain’s assertion and not with the IPCC authors.”

But Hasnain rejects that. He blames the IPCC for misusing a remark he made to a journalist. “The magic number of 2035 has not [been] mentioned in any research papers written by me, as no peer-reviewed journal will accept speculative figures,” he told New Scientist.

It might have been more appropriate for Pearce to use the word “me”, and accept his role in this brouhaha.

But for the moment, at least he seems to be thinking about the process he is a small part of. His latest article demonstrates the rifts that are emerging in the wake of the affair.

Glaciologists are this week arguing over how a highly contentious claim about the speed at which glaciers are melting came to be included in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Glaciologists, it seems, are now at odds with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

The IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, has hit back, denouncing the Indian government report as “voodoo science” lacking peer review.

Yet, clearly, following the words of Lal, about using non-peer-reviewed literature, Pachauri, on behalf of the IPCC has some serious questions to answer that are not answered by hand waving with statements about ‘voodoo science’.

One of the most frequent criticisms of climate sceptics is that their arguments lack foundation in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Yet here we see that in fact, one of the central claims made in the case for political action to mitigate climate change, had only a speculative basis in science.

Part 2

This all reminds us of a story we were working on a while ago. In Septmber 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”. We were unconvinced already. Humans are by definition not at the heart of any eco-centric view of the world. Moreover, the climate issue has been adopted by one-time development agencies to instead emphasise not developing as the most ‘progressive’ course of action for the world’s poorest people.

In failing to tackle global warming with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialised nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability. The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture. Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.

In our view, Oxfam had given up on the very concept of industrial and economic development as fundamental conditions of political development. Thus poorly conceived ideas about “human rights” had been married with climate change alarmism, to produce a chimera that expressed even greater intellectual poverty than its parents. We began looking at the claims made in the report, and tried to establish where they had come from. For a part-time, unfunded project such as Climate Resistance, this proved to be simply far too time-consuming, and other things were happening, such as the UK’s Climate Change Bill was being put (shoved) through Parliament.

We began compiling a list of the claims made by Oxfam, with the intention of asking them to show what their basis for them was. For instance, in the quote above, Oxfam say that scientific certainty exists about the relationship between the carbon emissions of industrialised countries and floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability that they have, allegedly, produced. We didn’t think that this was an appropriate emphasis of “scientific certainty”. Where had it come from?

What attracted our attention most, however, was this claim

According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger. [Pg. 2]

We looked to see if it was true. All we could find was this.

In other [African] countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003). [IPCC WGII, Page 448. 9.4.4]

Oxfam cite the IPCC, but the citation belongs to Agoumi. The IPCC reference the paper properly:

Agoumi, A., 2003: Vulnerability of North African countries to climatic changes: adaptation and implementation strategies for climatic change. Developing Perspectives on Climate Change: Issues and Analysis from Developing Countries and Countries with Economies in Transition. IISD/Climate Change Knowledge Network, 14 pp. http://www.cckn.net//pdf/north_africa.pdf.

There is only limited discussion of “deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture” in that paper, and its focus is not ‘some’ African countries, but just three: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It is not climate research. It is a discussion about the possible effects of climate change. All that it says in relation to the IPCC quote, is that,

Studies on the future of vital agriculture in the region have shown the following risks, which are linked to climate change:

  • greater erosion, leading to widespread soil degradation;
  • deficient yields from rain-based agriculture of up to 50 per cent during the 2000–2020 period;
  • reduced crop growth period;

Most interestingly, the study was not simply produced by some academic working in some academic department. Instead, it was published by The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). According to the report itself,

The International Institute for Sustainable Development contributes to sustainable development by advancing policy recommendations on international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change, measurement and indicators, and natural resource management. By using Internet communications, we report on international negotiations and broker knowledge gained through collaborative projects with global partners, resulting in more rigorous research, capacity building in developing countries and better dialogue between North and South.

Oxfam takes its authority from the IPCC. The IPCC report seemingly takes its authority from a bullet point in a paper published by an organisation with a declared political interest in the sustainability agenda that was the brainchild of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. (Take note: Conservatives are often behind the advance of the sustainability agenda, in spite of claims that it’s a left-wing phenomenon).

That the IPCC is citing non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific  research from quasi governmental semi-independent sustainability advocacy organisations must say something about the dearth of scientific or empirical research. The paper in question barely provides any references for its own claims, yet by virtue of merely appearing in the IPCC’s reports, a single study, put together by a single researcher, becomes “consensus science”.

The situation is simply insane. The IPCC are cited as producers of official science, yet they appear often to take as many liberties with the sources they cite, as those who cite the IPCC – such as Oxfam – go on to do. To ask questions about this process is to stand against ‘the consensus’, to be a ‘denier’, and to be willingly jeopardising the future of millions of people, and inviting the end of the world.

The popular view of the climate debate and politics is that the IPCC and scientists produce the science, which politicians and policymakers respond to, encouraged by NGOs, all reported on by journalists. But as the case of the glacier and North African water studies show, this is a misconception. Science, the media, government, and supra-national political organisations do not exist as sharply distinct institutions. They are nebulous and porous. They merge, and each influence the interpretation and substance of the next iteration of their own product. The distinction between science and politics breaks down in the miasma.

If this process could be mapped, it would be no surprise to us if it was discovered that the IPCC was be found citing itself through citing NGOs and Quasi-NGOs, and other non-peer-reviewed, not scientific literature. This is the real climate feedback mechanism. Sadly, we have no time and no resources for such a survey, as much as we’d like to.

But would it be necessary to ‘debunk’ the IPCC in this way? Maybe not. We can deal with the arguments on their own terms, after all. We have argued here on Climate Resistance that whatever the evidence or strength of the science with respect to the claim that “climate change is happening”, the political argument about how to respond to climate change depends too heavily on the notion that “failure to act” is equivalent to producing a disaster.

To re-iterate our fundamental point, the problem with much of the argument emerging from the sustainability camp – as the report cited by the IPCC who are cited by Oxfam surely is – is that its premise is political, not scientific. That is to say again than the ‘politics is prior’ to the science. It may well be the case that the region that the study focussed on faces increased droughts, and that, historically, agricultural output in those regions vary as rainfall varies, and that rainfall is declining. But this is not the whole story.

If indeed, they are at all true, the claims made in the report, the IPCC and Oxfam, are only significant if we assume that mankind is impotent to address the water problems they describe. But the North African region covered by the study has a coast, lots of sunshine, and a lot of land. Indeed, the area is being considered for a huge solar-energy project that could power much of Europe and the region, and so its water problems could be answered by the development of large-scale desalination infrastructure. The only problem is capital. So it is somewhat ironic that the lack of capital available to provide such a project with momentum is not the subject of Oxfam’s report.

Fat People are Killing the Polar Bears (Again)

Last year we mentioned Ian Roberts’ theory, as reported in New Scientist, that fat people are responsible for more than their fair share of global warming, and, in order to get a snappy headline out of it, we tied it into another New Scientist article, which was critical of research by Willie Soon, who had suggested that polar bears aren’t as vulnerable as is widely claimed. Both NS articles were, in our view, rather shoddy, reflecting the magazine’s partiality in the climate debate. Who could not form the impression that fat people were more responsible than the rest of us for the demise of the polar bear, if they took the magazine at face value? Excuses for snappy headlines aside, our post – ‘Fat People Are Killing the Polar Bears – was intended to demonstrate the confusion between the science and morality of climate change.

True to the eco-warrior’s demands that we ‘Reduce! Re-use! Recycle!’, Roberts’ argument – which deserves to go to landfill – has been recycled, in an article entitled Fat is an environmental issue in, yes, New Scientist magazine, who, on the same day, also reports uncritically more recycled ‘news’ from uber-eco-warriors, the WWF, that human activities are devastating the world’s wildlife. What have these fatsos got against polar bears, for goodness sake?

According to Roberts and his London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine colleague Phil Edwards, the fatties have to take the blame for not only climate change but also for panic-du jour, the global food crisis. Writing in the Lancet they argue that:

Petrol tanks and stomachs were competing well before biofuels were proposed to tackle climate change. Motorised transport is more than 95% oil-dependent and accounts for almost half of world oil use. Because oil is a key agricultural input, demand for transportation fuel affects food prices. Increased car use also contributes to rising food prices by promoting obesity which, for the reasons outlined below, increases the global demand for food.

Roberts and Edwards want the government to address the obesity ‘epidemic’, climate change and the food crisis in one fell swoop by making it more difficult for people to get around:

Urban transport policies that promote walking and cycling would reduce food prices by reducing the global demand for oil, and promotion of a normal distribution of BMI would reduce the global demand for, and thus the price of, food. Decreased car use would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus the need for bio-fuels, and increased physical activity levels, would reduce injury risk and air pollution, improving population health.

Of course, the government is already making it more difficult for people to get around. Increasingly, making it more difficult for people to get around is what governments are for, hence our point that local and national governments use ‘saving the planet’ to justify the reduction of public services, in favour of authoritarian, restrictive, and punishing policies, and in doing so, turn the notion of public service on its head.

But why pick on fat people? If calorie intake is the problem, what about those irritating, self-righteous athletic types? Or if resource use is what troubles them, how about, let’s say, academics, whose airmile quotient between conferences and (mis)use of precious paper outstrips by orders of magnitude what your average gluttonous member of the general public gets through? Or what about overweight academics? Or, overweight, denialist academics?

But calorie intake is not the only problem, apparently. Fat people are also lazy people, inclined to use cars more than the rest of us. And using cars makes you fatter. And then there’s all the extra fuel needed to transport all that extra lipid from A to B.

Recycling old research is, of course, necessary to keep the climate issue high up on the news agenda. But it has little to do with science. Nor, for that matter, news. It is political. And Roberts isn’t the only one doing it. Enter the WWF

The latest data on the global biodiversity of vertebrates shows that it has fallen by almost one-third in the last 35 years. But experts say it may still underestimate the effect humans have had on global species counts.

The Living Planet Index (LPI) follows trends in nearly 4,000 populations of 1,477 vertebrate species and is said to reflect the impact humans have on the planet…

New figures show that between 1970 and 2005, the global LPI has fallen by 27%. This suggests that the world will fail to meet the target of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss set by the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity.

Just as Ian Roberts grabs the headlines whenever – like some sort of bulimic ex-deputy prime minister – he regurgitates his antisocial theories, WWF can rely on the world’s media to tell it how the WWF like to think it is every time they publish the latest version of their Living Planet report. And they’ve been publishing it every couple of years or so for ten years now:

Year of Report Living Planet Index Years Covered Species Sampled URL Hysteria
1998 30 1970-1995 70 freshwater, 87 marine, terrestrial based on declines in natural forest cover link  
1999 30 1970-1995 102 freshwater, 102 marine, terrestrial based on declines in natural forest cover link Planet Earth under pressure
2000 33 1970-1999 319 forest, 194 freshwater, 217 marine link  
2002 35 1970-2000 282 terrestrial, 195 freshwater, 217 marine link Living standard seen slumping as resources run out
Earth ‘will expire by 2050’
2004 40 1970-2000 555 terrestrial, 323 freshwater, 267 marine link World Living Beyond Its Environmental Means – WWF
Consumption of Resources Is Outstripping Planet’s Ability to Cope, Says WWF
2006 30 1970-2003 695 terrestrial, 344 freshwater, 274 marine link Global ecosystems ‘face collapse’
Humans using resources of two planets, WWF warns
The state we’re in
Humans Living Far Beyond Planet’s Means – WWF
2006 27 1970-2005 813 terrestrial, 344 freshwater, 320 marine link Wildlife populations ‘plummeting’
Humans blamed for sharp drop in wildlife

World wildlife numbers down 25% in three decades
An epidemic of extinctions: Decimation of life on earth
World wildlife numbers down 25% in three decades
World species dying out like flies says WWF
Wildlife is down by one-third, says WWF
Wildlife numbers plummet globally: WWF

Year after year, the WWF and newspaper headlines tell us that wildlife is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. And yet the latest report, which surveys a larger number of species than previous ones and incorporates the expertise of scientists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), finds that the decline is not as bad as previous estimates have suggested. In the ten years that have passed since the first report, the Index has remained fairly constant. In fact, the 2008 Living Planet Index is the lowest since records began, despite the extra decade available for further declines. Carry on at this rate and, at some point, extinct species will start rising from the ashes. Of course, this apparent decline in species declines might be the result of many factors – increased sample sizes, involvement of the ZSL (for the 2006 and 2008 reports only), better controls for biased samples (earlier reports did not even attempt to control for the fact that species for which long-term population data are available tend to be species for which we have good reason to believe might be declining – rare or commercially important species, for example), etc. But the fact remains that species declines have been significantly overestimated in the past – by about a third, according to this latest estimate. It’s just that ‘Wildlife declines not as bad as previously thought’ doesn’t quite pack the same punch headline-wise. And one can only imagine the eco-pocalyptic headlines had previous estimates been found to be too low.

We remain unconvinced that the sample merits extrapolation to vertebrate species as a whole. The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal (although, according to co-author Dr Ben Collen of the ZSL, it has been accepted for publication by Conservation Biology), so all we have to go on is the WWF report (which isn’t much help) and an interview with Collen. He told us that, while all species were weighted equally in the index, they did check for bias towards declining species by looking at the rationale behind the collection of population data for each species in the first place. This way they were able to show that species declines did not become a more important factor in choosing which species to monitor over time. This, in turn, relies on the argument that conservation biology is a relatively modern sub-discipline, emerging in the 1980s. Prior to that, he said, the emphasis was on ‘natural resource management’. But, by the same token, natural resource management could be expected to be more concerned with monitoring scarce natural resources than plentiful ones. With regard to commercially important species, which might also be expected to be declining by definition, Collen told us:

That would be true if our index had a lot of commercially exploited species. But it doesn’t. We have 241 fish species in comparison to, say, 800 birds [a taxon that is less important commercially]. In an ideal world, we’d be able to pull out all this meta-data on all these individual species, but that’s not possible.

As we keep stressing, an environmentalist conspiracy this is not. It’s just convenient. It’s convenient for the WWF (obviously); it’s convenient for journalists and newspapers, in that they can keep on publishing big scary numbers devoid of sobering context; it’s convenient for the scientists at the Zoological Society of London who, like all scientists, increasingly have to justify themselves in terms of media coverage and social impact; and it’s convenient for directionless politicians. A sure sign of just how convenient big numbers are for everybody concerned is that, following the 2002 edition of the Living Planet report, Reuters reported erroneously, in a story picked up by many other outlets (including Yahoo, ENN, Planet Ark), that more than a third of all species had gone extinct since 1970:

The study found that human economic activity had reduced the number of surviving animal, bird and fish species by 35 percent over the past 30 years.

Freshwater fish had been especially badly hit, losing over half the species in existence in 1970, while key marine species – most of which provide food for the burgeoning popu
lation of humans – were down by just under 40 percent.

A simple mistake, perhaps. And yet nobody raised a sceptical eyebrow. Except us. As we said at the time:

News of environmental catastrophe tends to be accepted without question. The idea of plummeting biodiversity has become so ingrained in our mindset that the actual number of species reported to be disappearing per unit time doesn’t matter – just as long as it’s a very big number. Society, it seems, is content only when it can be confident that Mother Nature is drawing her final, wheezing breath.

The Living Planet Index comprises but one half of the Living Planet report. The rest consists of the Ecological Footprint – the index of how many planets-worth of resources we are using up with our decadent modern lifestyles. We might revisit this in the near future. Because you can bet your internal organs that the footprint is as silly as the LPI is hyped. Suffice it to say for now that we suspect that humankind has been using the Earth’s resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished throughout the entire course of our history. Because the WWF’s calculations take absolutely no account whatsoever of the possibilities for technological development. How many planets-worth were we using prior to the Green Revolution, for example? How many planets-full of North American buffalo would have been required to make the Native American lifestyle ‘sustainable’? We like to think that someone somewhere has actually done the calculations. But then again, that sort of research isn’t quite so convenient for anyone.

It is also worth noting that the ZSL scientists involved in the Living Planet report are commissioned by WWF. At Climate Resistance, we don’t really give a monkey’s (endangered, fat or otherwise) who funds what research by whom. Many do care, however, including, as we have seen, New Scientist, who chose to make Willie Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry the focal point of its coverage of his polar bear research last year. Strange, then, that the mag doesn’t even mention the ZSL’s financial links to a dodgy pressure group in its coverage.

US Presidential Candidates in "Ties to Industry" Shock

Catherine Brahic, “New” “Scientist”‘s online environment reporter continues to reflect the magazine’s confusion between environmental science and environmental politics.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say “so much for the pulling power of oil money”. Reports suggested that it played a big role in George W Bush’s two terms in office, but according to this stunning online interactive graphic, it was powerless to save Rudolph Giuliani in the 2008 primaries.

The graphic is from OilChange International, who have made an online toy showing the relationships between past US presidential candidates and oil industry donors.

But what is the significance of oil money? Is it really surprising that corporations and businessmen donate to presidential candidates? Not a lot, and no. US presidential candidates are not going to have got to where they are by not taking donations and by refusing to be friends with rich people. You might find something equally scurrilous by looking at donations from any industry sector – toys, for example – and their donations. Even greener-than-though, pledge-making eco-warrior Al Gore took $142,014 in 2000, according to this silly database. (Only enough to pay his gas bills for just a couple of months though.) Rich people hang out with each other. It’s what they do. Companies (and individuals) make donations to US politicians. It’s how it is done.

Corruption? Hardly. Right or wrong? That’s a very different question. There are many discussions to be had about whether what goes on in Western democracies is ‘right’. But that it it ‘all about oil’ is an argument which comes up again and again, and again, in the climate debate. Why?

It reveals an awful lot about the Green movement (as well as a large part of the liberal left) that it can’t actually challenge its counterpart, or call for a new form of politics which doesn’t require such vast sums of capital. It’s easier to say, for example, that John Kerry ($184,037) lost the election to George Bush ($2,649,725) because of oil money, or because people are stupid, or like rats, and republicans appeal to stupid people. Instead of reflecting on why their ideas have failed to find a home in the public imagination, increasingly commentators have looked for other reasons to explain the failure of the self-proclaimed good guys. If politicians eager to identify with progressive movements were to try to challenge the politics by which powerful interests gain influence, they would undermine themselves. This is perhaps more evident in UK politics. We’ve linked to this video before… David Cameron, standing on top of Greenpeace’s HQ in London, showing off his ethical credentials, and announcing a new policy.

Is it any less dodgy to be in bed with Greenpeace (a multi-national player if ever there was one) than with an oil Baron? Who is Cameron trying to appeal to here? His plans for micro-generation will be appealing to about 0.001% of the UK population – mostly his landed school chums. Meanwhile, micro-generation is likely to serve only as a colossal pain in the arse to anyone who has to depend on it – everyone else. His policy has not emerged from a well-developed political philosophy that he wants to share, but just the immediate need to appear to be in bed with the “right people” in the mistaken belief that it will appeal to “the people”. Greenpeace are only too happy to be the powerful corporate interest in that relationship. All it has to complain about is that it’s own vast spending power hasn’t had the effect on the electorate that it imagines the oil money has.

If $2 million were enough to buy a US president, the US wouldn’t be quite the superpower it is. Like the shrill cries about ExxonMobil-funded sceptical scientists, the claim lacks any sense of proportion.

The oil argument is a big, black…er… red-herring tossed out by a movement that thrives on the exhaustion of political elites, but finds itself the object of just as much cynicism from the public. Naturally, then, the movement finds faults with both. The former is corrupt, and the latter is stupid. Tired politicians are turning to the environmental movement as a PR move for empty campaigns.

Back to the New Scientist blog… Brahic is, of course, not reporting science, but politics. We certainly don’t dissapprove of coverage of the politics of the environmental debate. But Brahic and the New Scientist’s agenda don’t actually bring a fresh perspective on the debate more than they epitomise it. You could hear the same old stories and tired rhetoric from any mouldy old hairshirt ecowarrior. Recycling internet innuendo, conspiracy theories and doom-mongery is not ‘news’. There is an interesting debate to be had about the relationship between science and politics, but New Scientist is not fuelling it.

Imminent Shortage of Stories for "New" Scientist

(Or “Global Production of Alarmist Story-Lines Past Peak” or “Gloom-Mine Reserves Increasing According to Demand” or “New Scientist in Search of Renewable Sources Of Gloomy Stories” or [INSERT OWN HEADLINE HERE])

An editorial in last week’s (19 Jan) New Scientist magazine claims that “there is a case for nuclear power, but the future is with renewables”. Gone are the days of scientific optimism. The new scientists are now pessimists. The editorial concludes, following some seemingly intractable political problems with nuclear energy that “… don’t let’s delude ourselves that [nuclear power] still has a long-term role to play”.

This miserable theme is continued on page 38 by David Strahan in his article The Great Coal Hole (available in full here), in which he reports that the world is facing an imminent shortage of coal. “And not only because of logistics”, warns Strahan, “but also because of geology”. This runs counter to many previously held studies which have attempted to estimate how much black stuff we have left. One 1996 study even suggested that there may be as much as 7.8E12 tonnes (7,800,000,000,000) of coal – enough for around 1200 years at today’s rate of consumption.

According to the article, however, even the World Energy Council’s far more conservative 2007 estimate of 847 billion tonnes of known coal reserves world-wide (enough for 140 years at present consumption) may be vastly over-inflated. Known reserves of economically recoverable coal are actually shrinking faster than coal is being consumed, says Strahan.

Another less noticed reason is that in recent years many countries have revised their official coal reserves downwards, in some cases massively, and often by far more than had been mined since the previous assessment. For instance, the UK and Germany have cut their reserves by more than 90 per cent and Poland by 50 per cent … Figures for two of the world’s biggest coal producers are particularly hard to glean. Russia has failed to update its numbers since 1996, China since 1990. “There is really nothing very certain or clear-cut about reserves figures anywhere,” Clarke says. Even senior officials in the coal industry admit that the figures are unreliable. “We don’t have good reserves numbers in the coal business,” says David Brewer of CoalPro, the UK mine owners’ association.

A more sobre analysis of Britain’s coal situation, from 1993, is available from the New Scientist’s own archive. It reveals that the true size of the UK’s coal reserves has never been certain.

The nature of the real problem is well illustrated by the deceptively simple question of ‘How much coal is there in Britain?’ A great variety of answers has been provided over the years. A report of a Royal Commission in 1871 estimated the figure to be 149 billion tonnes. Reserve figures based on coal workable for the following hundred years were estimated in 1942 at 21 billion tonnes. In 1973, ‘operating reserves’ were estimated at 4 billion tonnes and in 1979 to be about 7 billion tonnes. Also in 1979, British Coal estimated ‘coal in place’ at 190 billion tonnes, of which about 45 billion tonnes might eventually be shown to be a reserve, a figure that has been taken to indicate that there is enough coal for the next 300 years at the prevailing rate of mining. Recently the British Geological Survey has suggested that the true operating reserves may be as little as 3 billion tonnes. So, over the years we have seen an extraordinary range of figures for Britain’s coal reserve/resource.

Evidence from the Coal Authority to a 2001 House of Lords Select committee suggested that the UK had even less coal.

The CA has consulted with the British coal industry and have advised the Cabinet Office Energy Review that estimated established reserves amount to 222 million tonnes with a further known potential of 380 million tonnes; in addition currently un-accessed deep mine and open cast resources potentially (see para 11 below) provide many years of future production at present levels. 

These increasingly conservative figures appear to support Strahan’s thesis, albeit while detracting from its newsworthiness. But, as the evidence points out:

Section 5(6)(b) of the Coal Industry Act 1994 specifically prevents the CA from exploring for new coal or proving known occurrences. It is also barred from obtaining planning permission or any other authorisations required for carrying on coal mining operations. In today’s circumstances, this prevents an overall approach being adopted in the public interest. Equally important, known reserves of coal are universally in danger of being sterilised by non coal related surface developments. There is little, if any, effective planning policy to prevent the sterilisation of coal which may be required for working in the future. Unlike the situation with aggregates for example, there is no land banking policy for opencast coal embedded in the formalities of the Town and Country Planning system. Even if Britain’s considerable opencast and deep mine coal resources are not to be extensively worked under the existing planning regime, it is important that they should be kept available to facilitate any future change in policy which might favour their exploitation. 

Uncertainty remains, even in the UK – a small island, one of the richest countries in the world, and one of the most comprehensively surveyed, by some of the keenest geologists and geographers. Nonetheless, the gloominess in the New Scientist continues…

Taken together, dramatic falls in some countries’ reserves coupled with the stubborn refusal of others to revise their figures down in the face of massive production suggest that figures for global coal reserves figures are not to be relied on. Is it possible that the sturdy pit prop of unlimited coal is actually a flimsy stick?

This seems to imply that something nefarious is going on. This “stubborn refusal” is presented as though it were a deliberate attempt to deceive, when in fact, as is clear, the truth is that there are no such data, even for the UK. How can we expect it to exist in Russia, and China, given their comparatively vast sizes, and arguably more limited human resources? The article goes on to explain that we know that coal is running out – in geological terms – in spite of the conspiracy to keep us misinformed, because price increases would have the effect of increasing known reserves, as geological reserves became economically viable.

Problem is, the real world seems to have forgotten this piece of economic lore. Although the price of coal has quintupled since 2002, reserves have still fallen. This is similar to what is happening with oil, where fresh reserves have not been forthcoming despite soaring prices. To a growing number of oil industry commentators this is because
we have reached, or are just about to reach, peak oil – the point at which oil production hits an all time high then goes into terminal decline.
 

That is to say that we know that prices have risen, and reported reserves have fallen, indicating that prices are rising because of depletion, not confounding economic factors. But Strahan has already explained that reserve reporting is unreliable. Now that they are being downgraded, he seems sufficiently confident in them to make some alarmist statements.

Yet we know that the downgrading of reserves has political causes. For example, one reason for the UK downsizing its reserves might just be because of Britain’s recent history. Coal mines in the UK were shut down amid a historic dispute between the Government and miners, and the declining cost of importing coal from elsewhere against the rising costs of domestic production, not because Britain had run out of coal. In the case of oil, the rising price has much to do with uncertainties caused post-9/11 and by the War in Iraq and tensions in the Middle East. Reluctance to invest in exploiting new reserves might reflect the fact that global economic forecasts are currently as gloomy as the New Scientist. With economic downturn comes a reduction in demand. Who would invest in bringing new sources online in the face of economic uncertainty? Furthermore, it is not true that known geological reserves can switch on and off according to the price. Mining is an expensive business, even more so when mistakes are made.

As the 1993 article tells us, in the wake of two economic recessions:

But recent years have seen the opposite trend, with a progressive decrease in the price of most fossil fuels. Variations in the price of a barrel of oil have resulted in oilfields being brought into production or ‘mothballed’ as the price has gone up, or down. In the short term, price variations of a commodity have little to do with available resources or reserves and everything to do with Gulf crises, new environmental legislation, the state of the economy or perceptions within the commodity market. In the longer term, however, the price must be related to the availability of resources and reserves and the ease and relative potential cost of transferring estimates from the resource category to the reserve category. 

ie, politics not geology. But what is behind this idea that the super-abundance of coal is a fragile illusion, and that the truth is in just two decades we will run out? The first thing is a need to create stories about the future. This is no bad thing in itself. After all, the good news that we’ve got a millennium of coal left is as uplifting as the news that we’ve only got two decades left is depressing. But Strahan does not report about new research about the actual, physical amount of coal in the ground, but a fairly old and clunky way of divining that same data from proxies. In the process he forgets that both the downgrading of reserves and the current high price of energy can be explained by political forces rather than geological ones. Downgrading merely reflects a lack of any meaningful data, and the peculiarities of geopolitics and the market explain high prices. Second, the bigger storyline is the New Scientist’s editorial agenda, which seems bent on pursuing alarmism, and taking environmentalist political positions on matters which it really ought to be shedding light on. Strahan’s thesis also relies on the (controversial) work of M. King Hubbert:

To forecast coal production Rutledge borrowed a statistical technique developed for oil forecasting known as Hubbert linearisation. M. King Hubbert, after whom the method is named, was a the Shell geologist who founded the peak oil school of thought. In 1956 Hubbert famously predicted that US oil production would peak within 15 years and go into terminal decline. He was vindicated in 1970. 

So what’s the truth? How much coal is there really left? Probably somewhere between the highest and the lowest estimate. Which still gives us good time for finding out how much is left, and developing alternatives. Hubbert said some interesting things about those, too:

… it appears that there exist within minable depths in the United States rocks with uranium contents equivalent to 1000 barrels or more of oil per metric ton, whose total energy content is probably several hundred times that of all the fossil fuels combined. The same appears to be true of many other parts of the world. Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than that made possible by the fossil fuels. 

Not if the “new” scientists have their way, it isn’t. But even Strahan and New Scientist can’t help looking on the bright side, just a little bit:

The sliver lining to this gloomy scenario is its effect on climate. Forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assume more or less infinite replenishment of coal reserves, in line with traditional economic theory. Less coal means less carbon dioxide, so the impact on emissions could be enormous. Using one of the IPCC’s simpler climate models, Rutledge forecasts that total CO2 emissions from fossil fuel will be lower than any of the IPCC scenarios. He found that atmospheric concentration of CO2 will peak in 2070 at 460 parts per million, fractionally above what many scientists believe is the threshold for runaway climate change. “In some sense this is good news,” Rutledge says. “Production limits mean we are likely to hit the general target without any policy intervention.” 

Hurrah for not having enough energy.

Climate Deniers Are Slaves to Democracy

On the New Scientist (which is neither) blog last week, Catherine Brahic, the rag’s online environment reporter was struck by a paper published in the journal Climatic Change. Brahic summarises:

Davidson claims that historical hindsight shows how preposterous the claims made in favour of slavery were. He suggests they bear striking resemblance to claims made against taking any action on climate change by contemporary members of Congress. 

Like the mag itself, this argument is neither new nor science. It poses as philosophy. Which is fine. But really it’s just a rehash of the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut. Yet it is still interesting, because, just like the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut, it tells us more about the people making it than it does about its subjects. In spite of being ‘not convinced the comparison is helpful’, Brahic is sufficiently sympathetic to finish her article with the cynical words:

Political decisions are based on money, not morals. 

It’s that money argument, again, even though abolition is about as good an example of a political decision based on morality rather than money that you are likely to find. Brahic’s sympathy for Davidson’s thesis appears to be based on the idea that arguments for the continuation of slavery were preposterous, and business-as-usual arguments are preposterous, therefore, denying climate change is as bad as being in favour of slavery. Or something.

The causes of ‘bad science’ in today’s society – such as the rise of alternative therapies, creationism, and new religious movements – are the subject of many a hand-waving thesis. But when that discussion extends to arguments about the role of oil and money in society, people claiming to have science on their side are adding bad politics, bad history and bad philosophy to the mix. And in his paper, Parallels In Reactionary Argumentation In The US Congressional Debates On The Abolition of Slavery And The Kyoto Protocol, Marc D. Davidson certainly claims to have science on his side. In fact, he goes as far as to equate the science of climate with the morality of equality. Well, he has to really, otherwise he wouldn’t have a paper to write. Davidson’s abstract reads:

Today, the United States is as dependent on fossil fuels for its patterns of consumption and production as its South was on slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. That US congressmen tend to rationalise fossil fuel use despite climate risks to future generations just as Southern congressmen rationalised slavery despite ideals of equality is perhaps unsurprising, then. This article explores similarities between the rationalisation of slavery in the abolition debates and the rationalisation of ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases in the US congressional debates on the Kyoto Protocol. 

He then makes equivalents of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1856 13th Amendment to the US constitution, abolishing slavery. The earlier document, states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. 

On the UNFCCC agreement, Davidson writes:

Despite this commitment [“to protect the climate system for present and future generations.”], the US Congress has as yet rejected any mandatory regulation of greenhouse gases, including the binding emission targets for the industrialised nations agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol 

But how is using slaves the moral equivalent of using oil? The subtitle of the second section of Davidson’s article – ‘Similarities between slavery and the use of fossil fuels’ – promises to answer the question… but doesn’t. Instead Davidson argues that they are similar because (i) abolition of slavery/oil is not in the interests of the electorate – people who had a vote did not have an economic interest in abolishing slavery, or in the later case, oil; (ii) the electorate shifts costs onto those outside of the electorate – the slaves do all the work in the same way that oil does, and the costs of using that oil (as opposed to labour) are borne by future generations, who are not yet part of the electorate; and (iii) arguments against both the slave trade, and efforts to reduce CO2 are similar because they both resist social change.

Davidson’s problem, it seems, is with democracy – that it does not represent the interests of people who do not yet exist; people in the future are excluded from the process because they aren’t alive yet, just as slaves were denied access to the democratic process. But this does not make equivalents of using slaves and using oil. In order to be deprived of ‘rights’ it is necessary to exist. So to grant rights to people who do not exist, or to claim that they are being denied their rights, or to imply that you somehow speak for them are all totally absurd.

And it’s far from clear that using oil does leave a cost for future generations to pay. This claim cannot be tested until such time as such people exist. It is a significant assumption. Davidson defers the argument to the future, in order to escape being challenged. And he admits that reducing CO2 emissions is not without its detrimental effects: after all, he agrees that it’s not in the electorate’s interests. It is democracy itself which creates slaves out of the humans of the future, according to Davidson; democracy is the means by which social progress is thwarted; it cannot transcend self-interest in favour of the interests of people he has conjured from his imagination. The “social progress” (and it is neither) he has in mind (even though he agrees it’s not in people’s interests) is one where people who don’t exist yet are spoken for by anyone who wants to call the precautionary principle, against the interests of people who actually exist.

More interestingly, especially given that he’s a philosopher, Davidson doesn’t even explain why slavery is wrong. Slavery is wrong, of course. But if you want to show that something else is wrong in a similar way, you have to make it clear why it is wrong. Were we to claim that tap-dancing is the moral equivalent of drug-pushing you’d want to know why. If we answered in terms that failed to connect tap-dancing to drug-pushing, you’d close your browser, never to return.

Phillis Wheatley was a slave from Gambia bought by a wealthy Boston Family at the age of just seven in the mid 1700s. Unusually, the family encouraged her to read and write, especially poetry – for which she became famous on merit.

On being brought from Africa to America

`Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

You don’t need to be a Christian to see the message. Wheatley was grateful for being brought to the USA, and for the opportunities she had, but not for being bought and sold as a slave. This is pertinent because no barrel of oil could ever write a poem which expresses such potential. As her poem suggests, the act of buying, selling, or using slaves is immoral because it creates a relationship between people which degrades humanity, when in fact, slaves were in every respect as capable of achieving as much and contributing to civilisation as their white counterparts.

The trouble for Davidson is that were he to state a principled objection to slavery, he would undermine his own argument. It would fall apart because, of course, people are not oil. It is only by dint of similarities in the shape of certain arguments, without historical and political context, superficially sharing some conceptual space, that slavery and oil usage can be seen as moral equivalents. Morality, for Davidson is more like geometry than an expression of humanity. This reveals far more than any resemblance between arguments against abolition and against climate change mitigation.

Davidson goes on to look for more geometrical congruence between arguments made hundreds of years apart, and finds another six arguments used by both Kyoto sceptics and anti-abolitionists: (i) What is deemed bad is in fact good; (ii) The benefits of the proposed policy are uncertain; (iii) Change brings economic ruin; (iv) Solo action will be ineffective and unfair; (v) Sovereignty will be undermined; (vi) Social change will hit other groups.

This is utterly mundane. What political issue is not debated on these lines? What divides camps on any matter, where one sees a thing as a good, and the other bad, with one arguing for either progressive or retrogressive change, the other for the status quo? Davidson might just as well argue that using oil and using slaves are moral equivalents because arguments in favour of their continuation were both constructed using words and marks of punctuation, arranged into sentences. What he is describing are six questions that will likely be at the centre of any political discussion about change. The closer you look at these six points, the sillier they become. In fact we are starting to seriously wonder whether his paper is some sort of clever spoof.

(i) Opposing political ideas will necessarily always differ about what is bad, and what is good. That’s why we have arguments. From some perspectives, a welfare state is bad, while others maintain that it is a good. Environmentalists argue that industrial society is bad, and deep ecologists argue that nature is itself a good. Others see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’. Davidson juxtaposes statements by vice president John Caldwell Calhoun, on February 6, 1837 with bogeyman du jour, Senator James Inhofe:

“the Central African race…had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition as that which it now enjoyed in the Southern States”…Slavery was not “an evil. Not at all. It was a good – a great good.”John Caldwell Calhoun 

“Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophic predictions by alarmists. In fact, it appears just the opposite is true, that increases in global temperature have beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” – Sen. James Inhofe.

We know why slavery is wrong. It deprives individuals of their liberty, and the institution limits the development of human society. Meanwhile, Inhofe’s point finds support among among many mainstream climate scientists, such as the Tyndall Centre’s Professor Mike Hulme, who has observed that catastrophe “is not the language of science. And the idea that climate change might produce benefits – however true or false it is – is not a moral argument. By contrast, the ideas that slavery is either right and good or wrong and bad are not testable, are moral arguments, and more to the point, slavery is an idea which disgusts us today not because of scientific investigation, but because of our understanding of humanity. Yet Davidson uses scientific and moral arguments as though they were interchangable.

(ii) The benefits of any proposed policy are always uncertain to any opponent. How can somebody who doesn’t see the policy as good, ever see the benefits as certain?

(iii) No doubt the end of slavery did bring economic problems, and yes, sceptics do worry about the economic costs of policies to mitigate climate change. But anyone who cites the Stern report in support of immediate mitigation also makes an economic argument. Does that make them the moral equivalent of slave traders, too? And even Davidson agrees that the economic effects of Kyoto would cause economic problems.

Although economic forecasts vary widely, there are few studies predicting that climate policy will benefit employment or economic growth. 

(iv) It is precisely the environmentalists who are arguing that solo action will be ineffective and unfair. That is why they – and Davidson – are calling for international frameworks.

(v) Sovereignty is not only a key concept in most political theories, it was also at the heart of the abolitionist argument, for slavery denies personal sovereignty. Davidson contrasts the argument that it is for individual states to decide the legal status of slavery in the 1800s with more recent complaints about supranational organisations (IPCC) creating policy frameworks.

As sincere as this fear of supranational bodies may be, however, the arguments become suspect if they are not accompanied by proposals for unilateral action. 

And yet he’s already claimed that the “solo action will be ineffective and unfair” argument is “reactionary”! Only, it seems, if it doesn’t conform to climate orthodoxy. Again, Davidson’s contempt for democracy is palpable.

(vi) All change creates winners and losers. Whether that change is progressive, or retrogressive, is, of course, the point. And as political scientist Harold D. Lasswell explained, “
Politics is who gets what, when, and how.” Even Davidson recognises this…

Apart from specific groups like manufacturers of solar cells or windmills, few people have a personal interest in rising energy prices.  

For Davidson, Kyoto sceptics are “reactionaries”, but it is Davidson who shows contempt for democracy, and for politics. He is unable to make moral equivalents of slavery and using oil, and so searches for abstract ways to connect them that bear no scrutiny. In doing so, he also shows contempt for humans. The relationship between slave and master is vicious, exploitative, and deliberate. The link between slaves and not-yet-existing-slave-like-people-of-the-future is merely tortured. The only person deliberately exploiting future generations is Davidson. The irony is that it is people in the present who suffer.

Environmentalism Causes War

Hey, who needs politics or history when we have climate science? New Scientist reports on a new study that finds (not for the first time ) a correlation between climate change and war, the implication being, of course, that the former causes the latter.

“Our basic model is that deviations in temperature can hamper crop production,” says Peter Brecke of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, US. This, in turn, has three effects: increasing food prices, a greater risk of death from starvation, and increased social tension, which leads to violent conflict.

And as New Scientist points out, people in high places are wont to agree that stable climate = world peace. They quote UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:

Sudan was “a conflict that grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation, and a scarcity of resources”

What this research does show is that humans have experienced climate change, and survived, and got better at both, to the point where we now need ‘scientific’ research to show us that once there was a relationship between the climate and people’s lives. Now, thanks to industrial agriculture – and development in general – that vulnerability is massively diminished to the point that climatic variation no longer has as significant social consequences as does the actual organisation of society itself. In this age, the means exist to feed the entire world, whatever the weather. Wars and politics – not climate – cause famines, and exacerbate the effects of drought. And yet ask yourself this: which political movement is against technological developments in industrial agriculture? Which political movement is against the mechanisation of farms in the developing world? Which political organisations campaign against the use of chemical agents in agricultural production?

If scarcity causes wars, environmentalism causes wars.

Fat Swedish Men are Killing the Polar Bears…

Another gem from the New Scientist, caught our eye – though even they don’t seem to be taking this one too seriously.

The fact that women travel less than men, measured in person-kilometres per car, plane, boat and motorcycle – means that women cause considerably fewer carbon dioxide emissions than men, and thus considerably less climate change. 

On further investigation, Gerd Johnsson-Latham’s “study on gender equality as a prerequisite for sustainable development” is confused about whether it wants to stop global warming, or achieve equality between the genders. Men, who are violent, risk-taking, and selfish, take all the resources, while women are more likely to be generous, help others, care about the environment and live in abject poverty. Even feminism seems to struggle to justify itself in today’s world without appealing to fears about global warming.

For a much funnier take on this, see Luboš Motl’s blog.

Scientific Consenseless

Writing in New Scientist this week, James Hansen tells us that the scientific community (you know, those ‘thousands’ of specialised scientists at the IPCC) are wrong, and have massively underestimated the extent of polar ice melting as a consequence of anthropogenic global warming.

I find it almost inconceivable that “business as usual” climate change will not result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century. Am I the only scientist who thinks so?

Apparently he is. And the reason? All the other scientists are being too cautious.

I believe there is pressure on scientists to be conservative. Caveats are essential to science. They are born in scepticism, and scepticism is at the heart of the scientific method and discovery. However, in a case such as ice sheet instability and sea level rise, excessive caution also holds dangers. “Scientific reticence” can hinder communication with the public about the dangers of global warming. We may rue reticence if it means no action is taken until it is too late to prevent future disasters.

Scientists, in other words, should adhere to the scientific method except when it’s politically inconvenient. (And only, presumably, when it’s Hansen’s politics that are inconvenienced.)

Most scientists who go against ‘the consensus’ get labelled as mavericks, sceptics or denialists. New Scientist covers their work only to show it up as scientifically flawed, politically motivated, the result of industry-funded misinformation and bad moral fibre, just as they did when they reported on Willie Soon’s paper challenging received wisdom that climate change is imperiling polar bears. Or just as Michael Le Page did in May this year when he wrote:

Indeed, those campaigning for action to prevent further warming have had to battle against huge vested interests, including the fossil-fuel industry and its many political allies. Many of the individuals and organisations challenging the idea of global warming have received funding from companies such as ExxonMobil.

Hansen, however, gets a 3000-word feature all to himself. Even though it doesn’t take much digging around to find that Hansen himself has more than his fair share of dodgy financial interests.

The consensus, it seems, may only be challenged from one direction.

Fat People are Killing the Polar Bears

Two recent gems from New Scientist magazine…

First up, Climate Change Sceptics Criticise Polar Bear Science, a story about some bad scientists, funded by bad money, who have apparently published some bad science in what is presumably a bad science journal, for bad reasons.

As the poster child for the climate change generation polar bears have come to symbolise the need to tackle climate change. But their popularity has attracted the attention of global warming sceptics funded by the oil industry, who have started to attack polar bear science. 

Willie Soon’s paper, which appears in the journal Ecological Complexity, questions ‘whether polar bear populations really are declining and if sea ice, on which the animals hunt, will actually disappear as quickly as climate models predict.’ But that’s all New Scientist has to say about the science.

Soon, who receives funding for this and other work from Exxon-Mobil, has been attacking climate change science for several years. Three of the six other authors also have links to the oil industry. 

The social construction of science doesn’t get much attention from the science press – or anyone else – these days. Science won the Science Wars. Scientific findings flourish or fail by the cold, objective, rational method of hypothesis testing, peer review and replication. And that’s all there is to it. Except, of course, when the science in question is funded by the oil industry. Because oil money, or just the faintest whiff of it, trumps the scientific method every time.

Ultimately, carping on about Exxon-funded scientists only serves to undermine the worth of all that hypothesis testing, peer review and replication. Because if dirty money overrides them, what else does? Is it any wonder that science doesn’t get the respect the scientific establishment thinks it deserves? Science is having its own Science Wars all by itself – with not a sociologist to be seen.

Even more absurd is Say No to Global Guzzling – How the Obesity Epidemic is Aggravating Global Warming by Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who appears to be offering an epidemiological perspective on global warming.

We tend to think of obesity only as a public-health problem, but many of its causes overlap with those of global warming. Car dependence and labour-saving devices have cut the energy people expend as they go about their lives, at the same time increasing the amount of fossil fuel they burn. It’s no coincidence that obesity is most prevalent in the US, where per capita carbon emissions exceed those of any other major nation, and it is becoming clear that obese people are having a direct impact on the climate. 

Roberts speciously reasons that obese people, who (allegedly) consume 40% more calories than non obese people, (allegedly) use their cars more because they are too fat to move properly, and (allegedly) eat the kind of things which are more CO2 intensive, contribute disproportionately to global warming than their thin counterparts.

Roberts’s argument is not scientific, but a narrow, shallow, and hollow critique of capitalist society:

The social stigma attached to obesity is one of the few forces slowing the epidemic – even though obesity is not a personal failing but a problem of society. We live in an environment that serves primarily the financial interests of the corporations that sell food, cars, and petroleum. 

This serving of ‘financial interest’ traps people in vicious cycles of low-self esteem and comfort eating, diminished mobility/health and car use – all to the detriment of the environment.

And as the number of obese people increases, a kind of positive feedback kicks in. Obese people in the US are already throwing their political weight around. 

Roberts then asks us to panic about the possibility of the political voice of fat Americans being used to demand, elevators, escalators, and other forms of labour-saving mechanisation, which in turn worsens the cycle of increasing fuel use, carbon emissions, and the world’s waistlines.

When all that the best clinical minds can offer is the political idea that people’s desire for food and labour-saving devices (ie, higher standards of living) are expressions of a kind of false consciousness, small wonder that people complain about ‘health fascism’. Roberts has such contempt for the public that he assumes to know their political and material interests better than they do, and pretends that it is ‘capitalism wot makes ’em do it’… that people are too fat headed to know what to eat.

It must be lean times at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, because this poverty-stricken argument is so bloated, it needs four bandwagons to wheel it onto the pages of the New Scientist: obesity, global warming, anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. All that’s missing is a photo of a polar bear perched on a dwindling ice floe.