Observing the Observer

by | Dec 21, 2008

The Observer (the Sunday Guardian) welcomes the appointment of a Gaia-botherer to Obama’s team.

The decision by Barack Obama to appoint John Holdren as his chief scientific adviser deserves widespread welcome. The Harvard academic and former energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, commands international respect among physicists, climate experts and other researchers. He is an able scientist and is also a vociferous critic of those who still deny our planet is overheating because of humanity’s industrial activities.

Holdren’s perspective on the climate debate is no more sophisticated than George Monbiot’s:

The few climate-change “skeptics” with any sort of scientific credentials continue to receive attention in the media out of all proportion to their numbers, their qualifications, or the merit of their arguments. And this muddying of the waters of public discourse is being magnified by the parroting of these arguments by a larger population of amateur skeptics with no scientific credentials at all.

As John Tierney argues in the NY Times, Holdren confuses politics with science.

Dr. Holdren is certainly entitled to his views, but what concerns me is his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions. Even if most climate scientists agree on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, that doesn’t imply that the best way to deal with the problem is through drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. There are other ways to cope, and there’s no “scientific consensus” on which path looks best.

And the Observer does much the same thing. The editorial continues:

Thus Obama, who takes up office on 20 January, has made it clear through Holdren’s appointment that global warming is going to be dealt with robustly by his administration. There is no longer room for doubt. Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making. Accepting this point is heartening news for the US – and for the rest of the world which, until now, has looked in vain for strong leadership from America in combating global warming. It was in part the hope of a change in US climate policy that helped give last November’s presidential elections such keen global interest.

The claim that “Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making” lacks scientific foundation, as Professor Mike Hulme explained to the BBC in 2006:

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. […] The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.

Even if we take it for granted that a ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change exists, it only speaks about a possible influence of anthropogenic CO2 on the climate, not the outcome of that influence, let alone the best policy response. The remainder is projection and speculation. That is to say that the catastrophic scenarios offered by climate alarmists are not constructed from ‘science’ by scientists, but from projections by a rag-bag of social scientists, economists, political activists, and any old Tom, Dick or Harry who cares to speculate, under (at least) two very significant (but always omitted from the discussion) assumptions.

The first is the precautionary principle. This allows any superficially plausible scenario to have weight in the climate debate by amplifying any possible risk to its maximum; what-if stacked upon what-if stacked upon what-if. The second is environmental determinism – the idea that society’s future (and its history) is determined by climatic factors rather than our ability to adapt and innovate.

These two principles are not science. They are politics. What they create is indistinct from science fiction: catastrophic story-lines are constructed from only superficially plausible projections. Ruling out our ability to adapt to these projections gives the stories political significance – ‘something must be done’. Normal politics is suspended in order to avert the fictional crisis.

The Observer editorial continues:

However, there is more to the elevation of Holdren, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, than the boosting of US climate action. In selecting a scientist of his stature, Obama is signalling clearly that he will be ending policies, introduced by George W Bush, that saw science sidelined and the advice of its practitioners ignored and sometimes distorted by the White House.

It is unclear what ‘scientific stature’ Holdren is supposed to have that is so remarkable. He might have started out as a scientist, but he’s made a career out of science policy. We couldn’t spot any science in list of publications. He’s not particularly noted for his commentary outside of the climate debate, famous only really for getting things wrong when teaming up with the Godfather of neo-Malthusianism, Paul Ehrlich.

But there’s something even more curious about the Observer’s commentary – that Holdren’s appointment is supposed to be some kind of victory for ‘science’ after the Bush administration. This highlights the vacuity of Bush’s critics (that’s no defence of Bush, by the way). As we can see, this ‘science’, isn’t science. It is catastrophism (via environmental determinism and the precautionary principle), with almost no scientific basis. Yet the idea of catastrophe is the only ‘hold’ Bush’s critics have over him. So it’s not science the Observer is talking about at all. If it is a victory for anything, it is a victory for fear-mongery: exactly what critics (many in the Observer) of Bush (and, for that matter, Tony Blair – ‘dodgy dossier and sexed-up documents) criticised Bush for – for his War on Terror: the use of fear to further his political agenda.

In other words, all that separates Bush from his successors is a fiction. They are at least as remote from science and its rational treatment as he was.

Hundreds of instances of political interference in the work of government agency researchers have been recorded over the past eight years, a shameful state of affairs that led to the demoralisation of thousands of US scientists. With Holdren, Obama has indicated this will now be brought to an end.

Or has it only just begun? If the only weapon that exists in the anti-Bush arsenal is a fiction, which is defended by contempt for scientific debate, what free debate – let alone scientific research – can we expect? Climate science has been thoroughly colonised by political interests.


  1. Turnips of Doom

    The other story I woke to was that Organic farmer were asking the govt to take a break from enforcing organic standards for the duration of the recession (I presume) – this was about 730 on radio 4 although a quick google hasn’t come up with much.

    As far as I am aware this relates mainly or just to animal feed but I am not sure what this means in terms of organic ideology? – wasn’t it going to feed the world ? Is the environment more important than the economy? Is it ok to sell inorganic as organic ? Will your lunch “save the planet” less? If Organic farmers are taking a break from being eco because of the eco-nomic landscape can I carry on pissing carbon out of my car during the green revolution on the same basis?

  2. Obnoxio The Clown

    Turnips of Doom: It’s OK, the Prius isn’t as popular as it used to be, either. Toyota’s taking a break from being green too. Both stories are covered here: http://tinyurl.com/9fd88b

  3. Stefan

    As you say, climate determinism is one of their problems. In a broader sense, it is their apparent inability to think holistically, which is ironic. It is their inability to think about complex systems and recognise that complex systems can’t be deterministically predicted, or even projected, scenario’d, nor guessed. I mean, you can guess, but to be correct the guess has to be so vague as to be worthless for practical uses. Experts say we are going into a recession. OK, we all know that. The point is, how long and how deep? That’s what matters. Experts don’t know.

    World resources are running out. Seems logical… so why did they lose the bet regarding precious metals? They must realise that they can’t predict because when their original prediction fails to come true, they still stick to the same idea; stuff will run out! The fact that it hasn’t yet is besides the point, it will, eventually! Well maybe a comet will hit us before then. So what? Maybe we’ll invent new technologies and new resources. As we always have done.

    Here is an idea: human ingenuity and widespread individual and collective efforts to develop will continue on all human scales and in all parts of the world. Scientists only provide certain kinds of information about certain things. They are not experts on humanity nor human processes nor our development. Yes they can tell us some things, but they are limited little pieces of information here and there. They do not have the whole picture, they do not think holistically.

    At the moment the greenies are locked in a political fight with everyone else to get us to put the environment first. I just wish we knew how to engage them in a way that spoke to their concerns without it turning into a fight against our infrastructure and economy.

  4. Alex Cull

    I think the economic downturn is serving to create a mood of pragmatism, and we’ll probably see a few more “green principles” go by the board during the next year. People who in times of plenty might have splashed out on a hybrid or even an electric car may find themselves settling for a second-hand petrol-burning Vauxhall or Nissan instead. Ditto with green tariffs for gas and electricity, organic food and “ethical” options of many kinds. On a world level, I think we’ll probably hear national leaders still talking the talk on climate issues but see them walking the walk on economic issues instead.

    Re the issue of stuff running out, I think it’s the case that low-hanging fruit tend to get eaten quickly. And if there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit, why go to the trouble of climbing higher? It’s when the easily-reached stuff has been used up, that we face a choice. Environmentalists might say the right choice is to volunteer to eat less of the fruit, or have fewer fruit-eating children; in other words, lower our expectations. The other way, of course, is to figure out a way to climb higher into the tree, or a clever way to bring the high-hanging fruit down to ground level.

    This is how our resourceful monkey cousins would see the situation, anyway. And we humans are no less resourceful when the need arises, IMO.


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