A Textbook Case of Politics

by | Apr 11, 2008

You can say whatever you like about climate change, just as long as it doesn’t appear to undermine political action to ‘save the planet’.

You can, for example, be the billionaire founder of the world’s first international, 24-hour TV news channel, and claim that in just 30 or 40 years humans will be cannibals, forced to eat each other’s flesh because all the crops will have died, without people making much of a deal about it. (Into the bargain, you can use your money and influence to advance the political idea that too many people inhabit the planet, and still be called a ‘philanthropist’, without a hint of irony).

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But threaten the fragile minds of the young with just the faintest whiff of an idea that there might be more than one side to the global warming story, and Friends of the Earth, armed with a NASA headed letter from James Hansen, will want to have words with you:

A textbook used in high school government courses across the country has come under fire from scientists and environmentalists for its misleading approach to global warming. The textbook, “American Government,” presents basic facts as matters of debate—leaving students with the misconception that there is no scientific consensus about human contributions to global warming when in fact a strong consensus exists. The textbook also dramatically downplays the threats global warming poses.
Friends of the Earth and the other involved groups are calling on Houghton Mifflin to immediately send a corrective addendum to schools, and ensure that the corrections are included in the next edition of the textbook when it’s published.

The complaint relates to the following text:

1. “It is a foolish politician who today opposes environmentalism. And that creates a problem, because not all environmental issues are equally deserving of support. Take the case of global warming.” (p. 559)
2. “The earth has become warmer, but is this mostly the result of natural climate changes, or is it heavily influenced by humans putting greenhouse gases into the air?” (p.559)
3. “On the one hand, a warmer globe will cause sea levels to rise, threatening coastal communities; on the other hand, greater warmth will make it easier and cheaper to grow crops and avoid high heating bills.” (p. 559)
4. “But many other problems are much less clear-cut. Science doesn’t know how bad the green-house effect is.” (p. 566)

None of these statements are factually incorrect, because they are not simply matters of fact. Passage 1 highlights a very important problem with Environmentalism in political science. How do we determine the best course of action when human interests are at odds with what are perceived to be ‘natural’ interests? Environmentalism is problematic because it cannot negotiate this conflict, tending – at best – to apply the precautionary principle in the environment’s favour, claiming (untestably) that ultimately those whose interests are displaced by eco-policies will be better off in the long-run because they wont have to suffer the consequences of environmental degradation. Take Ted Turner, or Sir Crispin Tickell’s view that too many people inhabit the planet, for example. This is ultimately an expression of the idea that people shouldn’t have rights to their own reproductive functions – for the sake of the planet, and it is the state’s role to either regulate reproduction through laws or disincentives, or to engineer values to achieve the same effect. This Malthusian perspective is at odds with other political philosophies which claim that mankind is able to adapt to new circumstances, and to create new technologies through science and politics. And it is indeed a ‘foolish’ politician who challenges this thinking in today’s political climate (unless he isn’t a coward) because he will earn the wrath of the likes of FoE, who position themselves as judges over politicians and policy. That order needs to be challenged if democracy is important.

Passage 2 doesn’t even make a statement, but asks a question. It doesn’t even challenge the premise that ‘the earth has become warmer’. As such, it is hard to see why the questions about what to do about it, and the relationship between science and politics aren’t important to political science students. FoE apparently would rather students learn that one side is right, and the other simply wrong, without any appreciation for how the facts of the matter are interpreted by different perspectives. That might be a worthwhile approach if it is desirable to create students without analytical skills.

Passage 3 isn’t even controversial. It is an acknowledged fact – by the IPCC themselves – that global warming would create benefits and open up areas to agriculture that were previously inaccessible, or simply too cold. Everyone knows that it’s not simply a case of climate change being all bad effects. The difference between the two perspectives is less about matters of scientific fact, and more to do with how problems are considered in relation to benefits. For example, the Environmentalist’s claim to humanitarianism is that “climate change will be worse for the poor”. Yet this principle assumes that there will always be poor people, and so creates an ‘ethic’ out of avoiding making life worse for the poor by minimising our environmental ‘impact’, rather than expressing genuine solidarity by lending a hand in ending the poverty which prevents development. But this ‘ethic’ is counter-productive. Similarly, the problems that people face in a warmer future are contingent on there being no political, economic or technological developments. And it is worth remembering here that the objectives of political Environmentalism are to divert our ambitions away from economic development, to end our ‘dependence’ on technological solutions to our day-to-day problems, and to reorganise society around small-scale, localised systems of production. Environmentalists seek undevelopment – sheer retrogression – in the face of climate change! Under the political conditions that Environmentalists want to create, our environmental conditions will necessarily cause the problems that they predict. As we have said before, Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Passage 4 – “Science doesn’t know how bad the green-house effect is” is not a controversial statement either. We recently quoted scientific historian, Naomi Oreskes – no climate change denier:

Agreeing about the reality and causes of current global warming is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. There is continuing debate in the scientific community over the likely rate of future change: not “whether” but “how much” and “how soon.” And this is precisely why we need to act today: because the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become, and the harder it will be to solve.

And as we pointed out at the time, what exists in the future as far as the majority of climate scientists are concerned is not fact, but doubt.

Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but th
e same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. … The Environmentalist narrative of catastrophe, doom, and apocalypse, once given superficial scientific plausibility (in that science cannot exclude the possibility of such things happening – which it never could),
provides doubt and uncertainty about the security of the future, which in turn provides political momentum and legitimacy for environmental policies.

What is important to Environmentalists is not that we know what will happen in the future – indeed, knowing what will happen in the future would undermine the doubt that Environmentalism thrives in. What is important to Environmentalism is that there is a vaguely plausible argument that it might be bad, and that humans might not be able to cope. Their energies are not focused on developing strategies to overcome the problems they anticipate, but to attacking any approach to them which in turn undermines the culture of doom that gives them political currency.

This news comes in the wake of climate activist Jo Abbess’s demands that the text of an article relating to the recent decline in world temperatures by BBC journalist Roger Harrabin be altered to reflect not the scientific reality, but to emphasise the catastrophic narrative. Harrabin did as Abbess asked (probably just to get the shrieking lunatic off of his back… time will tell) and changed the text of his article.

Harrabin’s article related to the fact that global average temperature appears to be declining, attributed by scientists throughout the world to ‘natural variability’. All this talk of natural variability follows a decade of no warming, and subsequent to a variety of claims that we have been about to experience warmer and warmer weather, which have been contradicted later by revised projections, and climate reality, as we reported on Monday.

Whether or not this means that global warming is or isn’t happening is not the point. What it does show, however, is that scientists have significant problems in accounting for the climate – especially the anthropogenic component – in spite of the ‘scientific facts’. Clearly, those facts are not quite as meaningful as Friends of the Earth maintain:

The book was authored by a prominent conservative, James Q. Wilson, who is affiliated with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute—which has received oil industry funding, and by John DiIulio, who served as director of faith-based initiatives in the George W. Bush White House.

Ahh, it’s not about science, its the ‘it’s all about the funding’ argument again. We like to think we’ve covered this argument in some depth . According to Greenpeace’s exxonsecrets website (even though the accounts of the organisations they intend to expose appear to be matters of public record)…

Total funding to American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research from Exxon corporations since 1998: $US 1,870,000

Well, that’s certainly a lot of money as far as you or I are concerned. But it’s only enough to supply multi-multi-multi-millionaire Al Gore’s house with energy for 60 years, not to mention his travel expenses. It’s nothing in comparison to the billions that Greenpeace has had in its coffers, and nothing in comparison to the hundreds of millions Gore has raised for his eco-army, and nothing next to the billion that Ted Turner has been able to give away, or the influence he is able to achieve. Al Gore’s film was intended to be sent to every classroom in the UK, yet as has been well established, it too is littered with inaccuracies, catastrophism, and outright untruths. Where were the FoE’s demands for scientific integrity then?

FoE draws on the support of James Hansen, who contradicts the IPCC ‘consensus’ with alarmist statements about meters of sea-level rise, yet escapes being called a ‘denier’ on the basis that he differs from the mainstream in a more apocalyptic direction. Hansen is no stranger to the political debate on climate science, and enters this affair on NASA-headed notepaper

The textbook’s authors repeatedly attempt to cast doubt on the accepted science of global warming. Among other things, the authors state that [1]“scientists do not know how large the greenhouse effect is, whether it will lead to a harmful amount of global warming, or (if it will) what should be done about it” (p. 560); [2]that “profound disagreements” about global warming exist within the scientific community (p. 560); [3] that so-called “activist scientists” say that the earth’s climate is warming (p. 560); [4] that “science doesn’t know whether we are experiencing a dangerous level of global warming or how bad the greenhouse effect Is, if it exists at all” (p.569); [5] and that global warming is “enmeshed in scientific uncertainty” (p. 573). [our numbering]

None of the claims about which Hansen complains are controversial. Points 1, 4, and 5 are well established. The advice given by the IPCC and science academies throughout the world is precaution. We have discussed this above, and recently and in posts about the precautionary principle.

Point #2 is certainly true. As Oreskes explains above. Point #3 is self-evidently true, and in the context of point #4, we would remind Hansen of the words of Mike Hulme while he was director of the Tyndall Centre:

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[Note: AR4]. To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. Is any amount of climate change catastrophic? Catastrophic for whom, for where, and by when? What index is being used to measure the catastrophe? The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.

Clearly there is fundamental controversy within the scientific community. (Indeed, a letter written on NASA-headed notepaper by Hansen’s boss, Michael Griffin, would make for very different reading.) So what is Hansen really complaining about?

Each of these statements is profoundly mistaken in ways t
hat will mislead students about the facts and science of global warming. In recent decades the scientific community has gathered overwhelming evidence that the earth’s climate is undergoing a period of significant heating, of which human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are a major cause. The scientific community no longer doubts whether global warming is happening. Scientific academies from across the globe, including the National Academy of Sciences, have stated unambiguously that human generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are the primary cause of well-documented global warming.

His concern that students will be mislead by the idea that there is no scientific certainty about the best way to proceed politically does not credit those students with the ability to understand that political direction has been achieved through the application of the precautionary principle. He knows that precaution is a vulnerable subject for the environmental movement, because it creates different responses to doubt, and so he protects the uncertainty with what certainty can be mustered. It is not controversial that we do not know what the future climate will be. It is not controversial in the scientific community that ‘global warming does exist’. But that statement has no necessary consequences. The consequences are the subject of controversy. And the mainstream response to those consequences is precaution. If we buy into the precautionary principle, we buy into a political, not a scientific perspective. That perspective holds that we might not be able to respond to climate change by adaptation, through political, economic, and technological creativity. If students were to understand that what determines the response to climate change is our political, rather than scientific perspective, then the argument about what to do has been lost. In other words, it is an orthodoxy – not good science – which Hansen is nervously protecting, an orthodoxy which he is determined will not be challenged, and he will use NASA-headed paper to make his point.

There may be many reasons to challenge the perspective offered in ‘American Government’. But this is not one of them. No doubt, John Dilulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor, and James Wilson, Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, are more conservative than most. But then, most sociology texts are written by people with political perspectives. In the UK, for example, Tony Blair had an intellectual relationship with sociologist Anthony Giddens – the author of many textbooks and ‘third-way’, communitarian and multiculturalist policy ideas. Thatcher similarly with Karl Popper – who needs no introduction. Asking political theorists or social scientists not to have political perspectives is like asking physicists not to have views – or even ideas – about wave-particle duality. And here is the problem. Nervousness about the future precedes and extends well beyond what science can or cannot determine. What looks like an objection to politically-motivated scientific inaccuracy in a textbook brings into relief the fact that people’s minds and the way they see the world are the source of the greatest uncertainty in the world. A political perspective causing such a moral panic reveals only the political exhaustion of the Environmentalists, and, by extension, the movement which considers itself an alternative to conservative thinking – the only way it can think of to challenge conservatism (even though climate scepticism is not conservatism) is to hide behind science, and to call for censorship. No wonder then, that they are against political perspectives in the political science classroom. No wonder they have no confidence in students to make up their own minds about what they read in politics textbooks. Never mind that it was a student – Matthew LaClair – responding critically to the text who started the fuss in the first place. The whole point – now forgotten – of political and social sciences is to challenge, negotiate and explain different perspectives on the world, and to convincingly develop newer and better ones.

But that would mean progress. And progress is exactly what Environmentalism stands in the way of. It would rather we unquestioningly adopted simple lives, didn’t demand better living conditions, didn’t ask questions about whose interests the ‘ethics’ of austerity are working in favour of, and didn’t ask why people should have to endure the hardships that lack of material wealth creates. Letting political (forget ‘scientific’) orthodoxy get challenged in the classroom is a sure fire way of allowing a generation of people to grow up disobedient, and worst still… aspirant. How dare they?

It used to be conservatives who stood for orthodoxies; traditions, and ‘knowing one’s place’ in natural and social orders. Now, those things seem to be what ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals’ campaign for. But these new radicals are radical in the same way the Taliban are. They want to change the world, but will brook no dissent. They will bring ‘ethics’ to bear on political matters, but deny political perspectives the right of expression. They will claim that a higher purpose legitimises their campaign, but not allow objections to that purpose.

As we are fond of saying, Environmentalism has thrived in an era of political exhaustion. Now that Environmentalism is at last beginning to face challenges from political science, climate science, and the results of thermometer readings, it’s time for Environmentalists to grow some balls, and stand up to these challenges, or push off.


  1. john a. bailo

    “Climate change policy” is a way of the entrenched to limit the expansiveness of the aspiring.

    Think of the AGWers as the Landed Gentry. Think of Resistors as the Mercantilists. We see to expand, grow and increase our wealth and well being. The Landed Gentry want to keep things as they are by creating the bogeyman of Global Warming.

    The result of this is to use government to tax and limit the aspiring people so that the Landed Gentry (Ted Turner) can maintain their relative status without doing any real work in the current time (resting on their laurels, so to speak).

    I mean look at Turner. Yeah, in his day he was something. But a “cable superstation” in the age of Internet streaming video on demand is a bit hoary. If Mr. Turner wants to decrease population, he should re-evaluate his relative importance to the human race now that time has passed him by…

  2. Anonymous

    This is how I edited the ‘message’ on the FOE site:

    I am writing to commend Houghton Mifflin and all the school districts currently using the textbook: American Government, 11th edition, by Professors James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio, Jr. I also ask that Houghton Mifflin continue to foster true scientific debate.

    The reason? Chapter 21 on Environmental Policy is a spot-on. We trust the textbook authors to be fair and speak the truth. To address global warming as “enmeshed in scientific uncertainty” is to address the work of our nation’s and the world’s top climate scientists on both sides of this political debate.

    We need our nation’s youth to be given all the information we have available so that they are able to make their own well-informed decisions. For years, Houghton Mifflin has provided that information–and I am glad that a company with such a highly respected reputation would publish a text of this depth.

    I sincerely doubt that this will ever see Houghton Mifflin’s PO box, because the idiots that run this website only want to send messages defending THEIR side of the debate. Also, I demand that the Friends of the Earth (hah!) do NOT put me on their mailing list.

    I won’t waste my governor’s time with this message. She has already been bought by the global warming industry!


    I hope they do add my name to this and send it! If anyone else wants to use this text, feel free to do so.


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