When a Butterfly Flaps Its Wings, Environmentalists Just Flap

We’re glad to see that the BBC has removed the error we flagged up on Thursday. Where it said

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 5.4C rise in tropical temperatures expected by 2100. 

it now reads

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 2-4 degrees Celsius rise in tropical temperatures predicted for the late 21st Century. 

It’s certainly not as ridiculously alarmist as it was. But we are no less confused as to where the new figure, 2-4 degrees Celsius, comes from than we were with the last one. It looks like some sort of hybrid between AR4 projections for tropical sea temperature increase and global average surface temperature rise. Which is odd, given that temperatures in the tropics are expected to increase less than those at the poles and temperate regions.

Anyway, we missed a trick with our last post on the issue. As commenters have reminded us, mosquitoes are insects too. But they’re the sort of insects that spread tropical diseases and, given that we already know that climate change change will be a Bad Thing, they must, therefore, be expected to buck the trend and increase in numbers and range as a result of climate change, spreading tropical disease as they go. Alex Cull puts it rather nicely:

Cuddly species such as polar bears and koalas, pretty butterflies and other cute creatures such as pandas and dolphins will suffer massive extinctions. At the same time, we will see a rise in nasty, unpleasant species such as weasels and wolverines, anopheles mosquitos, icky bacteria and other creepy-crawlies such as slugs, snails and puppy-dog tails. No arguments please. 

Climate change is bad for insects; but it’s good for bad insects. Another BBC article reveals that it is good for British butterflies, too – but in a bad way…

Butterflies need a warm summer in order to help numbers recover from last year’s washout, say conservationists.

Data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showed that eight species were at an all-time low as a result of an unsuccessful summer in 2007.

The main reason behind the decline was an above average rainfall, which meant the insects, such as the common blue, had fewer chances to feed or breed.

In other words, Britain’s butterflies would benefit from the sort of warmer, drier summer that we are told we’ll be getting more of as a result of climate change. (Although given that the BBC also reported recently that the “Next decade ‘may see no warming'”, what are the chances of that?) And yet, UK Biodiversity Minister (yes, there really is such a thing) Joan Ruddock still manages to twist things around so that it becomes a climate change scare story:

Butterfly populations also indicate the speed and extent of climate change. We will provide every encouragement for those working to conserve them. 

OK, so it’s hard to blame the BBC this time. But imagine the headline had the butterflies suffered after a particularly hot, dry summer.

These various reports on single studies/comments support an argument made a while back by Joe Kapinsky:

the genre of ‘study published today’ stories holds back understanding rather than enhancing it 

Science just doesn’t work in the way that the media generally portrays it, as an accumulation of individual studies that are like separate pieces in a giant jigsaw of truth. Science proceeds by replication, rejection, corroboration, falsification, stumbling up blind alleys, reformulation etc etc. It’s messy.

The only purpose this sort of science reporting serves is drama. It’s science as soap opera – it’s what we tune into when there is nothing else worth watching. It merely provides environmental politics with its latest installment of salacious talking points.

Six Degrees

Josie Appleton has written an excellent review of Mark Lynas’ book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet

Appleton takes issue with many of Lynas’ claims and dismal prophecies, and lucidly argues that catastrophic narratives offered by environmentalists may owe more to anxieties about wider problems in society than scientific observations.

As a non-climatologist, it seems logical to me that carbon dioxide emissions will cause global warming in some form – but if global warming meltdown starts in eight years’ time, I will eat my copy of Six Degrees, appendices and all. That is a conviction founded not on an analysis of Geophysical Research Letters, but on a consideration of the circumstances in which such science is produced.

Eight years is not a long time in geology. But it is a long time in environmental politics. Just six years ago, Mark Lynas wasn’t saving the planet by writing books, but by throwing custard pies at Bjorn Lomborg, who dared to challenge claims made by environmentalists.

I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face […] in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.

Although Lynas seems to have moved on from such childish prose and circus antics, he still claims to speak on behalf of the world’s poor (who are lumped in with the animals). But as we have pointed out before, Lynas’s solidarity only extends so far – their struggles are of less importance than balancing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Appleton describes this degraded moral framework well, and suggests that environmentalism can only understand human society in terms of atmospheric science. ‘Carbon dioxide becomes the nexus between individuals, the thing that connects us to other people and to the future of the planet. This infuses the most banal acts with a deep moral meaning’. This offers us an important insight into how the environmental movement depends on urgency and disaster to make its moral argument.

Environmentalism Spiked

Three excellent pieces from Spiked about the green movement…

First, Rob Lyons’ ‘The IPCC goes looking for bad news‘ is based on an interview with Aynsley Kellow, a contributor to recent IPCC reports.

‘even though Kellow has expressed public disagreement with the summary for policymakers, and the chapters that it flows from, he will still be listed as having taken part in the process – with the implication that he agrees with the final reports and is one of those thousands of experts who have apparently shown beyond all doubt that climate change will wreak havoc on the world.’

This highlights a major problem with the IPCC. It is regarded as a body that generates an unchallengeable consensus, which allows governments and activists to defer to its political and scientific arguments and to go unchallenged on matters of substance. What we lose is any sort of healthy debate. Rather than discussions about matters of political reality or scientific fact, all we get are (barely distinguishable) alternative interpretations of the scientific consensus on climate change. (Why don’t they just go the whole hog, and let the IPCC make all the policy?)

Second, Tessa Mayes explores what’s behind the recent Vanity Fair special on environmentalism featuring some celebs ‘doing their bit’, ie, assuming themselves to be in a position to lecture us on climate science and politics. Mayes echoes some points made by Lyons about the Eurocentricity of environmentalism, and asks an important question about the green movement…

‘But who does it help when big business is presented as the destroyer of nature and local Amazonians are depicted as the guardians of nature? Is that what Vanity Fair and other green campaigners really want for certain communities in Latin America? That they should live forever in harmony with nature, and their societies remain underdeveloped, natural, organic, hard work, at risk from the elements…?’

No doubt many greens would say ‘no’. But there don’t seem to be any green ideas in circulation that have distanced themselves successfully from Mayes’ characterisation. This is developed in Austin Williams’ account of how recent comments by Tony Juniper seem to acknowledge the conservative, backward-looking nature of environmentalism. Juniper’s attempts to reinvent it, however, suggest that the green movement is suffering from some form of identity crisis.

‘it is interesting that many environmentalists complain that they are constantly let down by how little practical attention we’re paying them.’

Willliams argues that these complaints are laughable, given the degree to which the political mainstream patently has absorbed environmentalism. He concludes that, in spite of all this angst and self-reflection by the green movement, its core values remain inescapably anti-human.

Did we say three excellent articles? Here’s a fourth.