Six Degrees

by | May 21, 2007

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.


  1. curiousother

    Appleton also invoked Thomas Kuhn’s arguments about the social construction of science to support her article. These are just as, if not more so, unscientific as the anxieties of environmentalists.

  2. Anonymous

    I’m curious about curiousother’s objection. In what sense does the article depend on Kuhn? And what does CO mean by ‘unscientific’?

    There may be some valid criticism of Kuhn to be heard, but the above is incomplete.

  3. CuriousOther

    Well quotes such as “Science must draw its models from society, because after all scientists are human beings not machines; science is a model of nature reconstructed in our heads.” and “It is strange, at a time when the social construction of science is an established idea” are suggesting that predicted negative outcomes from climate change are a product of the social context in which they were presented. This reeks of social constructionism which in its weak form, as Pinker has suggested, is a reasonable theory. However, most social constructionist arguments prefer the stronger form that everything, including scientific observation, is a social contruct.
    Appleton seems to think that “We need a new school of thought in the global warming debate, which is founded not on scientific facts but on political critique.”. Changing political arguments will not affect scientific models on climate change. If Appleton wants to make her point by arguing that the models are wrong, or the conclusions overstated then by all means she should. Dismissing the models as a social construct does her argument no favour and casts doubt on her ability to understand the caveats and uncertainties inherent in global warming models.
    I’m not commenting directly on her conclusions, just on her arguments in reaching them.


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