The climate conference in Copenhagen that ended this week produced a barrage of startling headlines, many of them from just one man.
On Tuesday, the Guardian’s junior climate alarmist, David Adam surprised us with an uncharacteristically non-doom-laden article:
Greenland ice tipping point ‘further off than thought’
The giant Greenland ice sheet may be more resistant to temperature rise than experts realised. The finding gives hope that the worst impacts of global warming, such as the devastating floods depicted in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, could yet be avoided.
That evening, David’s mood soured:
Global warming may trigger carbon ‘time bomb’, scientist warns
Even modest amounts of global warming could trigger a carbon “time bomb” and release massive amounts of greenhouse gases from frozen Arctic soils, a new study has warned.
By Wednesday, David’s gloom reached unprecedented levels:
Caught on camera: The Greenland tunnels that could speed ice melt
The Greenland ice sheet is riddled with channels that could quicken ice loss and speed sea level rise, a new study has revealed.
That afternoon, David’s gloom was worse than previously thought:
Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts
Global sea levels could rise much higher this century than previously projected, raising the threat level for millions of people who live in low-lying areas, new research suggests. Scientists at a climate change summit in Copenhagen say changes in the polar ice sheets could raise sea levels by a metre or more by 2100. The implications could be severe.
On Thursday, David’s gloom exceeded even the worst projections.
Severe global warming will render half of world’s inhabited areas unliveable, expert warns
Severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in, a US scientist warned today.
By that afternoon, things had passed a tipping point:
Europe ‘will be hit by severe drought’ without urgent action on emissions
Europe will be struck by a series of severe droughts that will make life “hell” for hundreds of millions of people unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, a new study shows. … Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, Greece and numerous other countries would be turned to semi-desert as climate change turned off their rainfall… Asked what life would be like there, Warren said: “Hell, I should think. It is incomprehensible to imagine adapting to that level of drought.”
Adam operates on the principal of one article per scientific paper. We’ve mentioned this ‘tyranny of the news peg’ before. It reduces the scientific process to a rolling news service devoid of context and analysis, allowing Adam to report, on consecutive days, that Greenland ice melt is, respectively, less and more imminent than previously thought. It is as if scientific truth equals the sum of all the papers produced on a scientific subject divided by their number, and that for truth and democracy to triumph, he just has to precis a sample of them, and distribute them between the categories of ‘worse…’ or ‘better than previously thought’, so that our minds can be made up by the law of averages. But if he does see his role as a passive conduit for information, he misunderstands both the workings and the function of both science and journalism.
A further caution that Adam throws to the wind is that much of the new research he reports on will not yet have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Conferences are like that. They are a platform for scientists to present more tentative results, hypotheses and interpretations. We could find no sign in the literature of any of the studies Adam mentions. And many of them will not make it through the review process, or will only do so having been revised beyond recognition in terms of their scientific and/or political content.
Of the hundreds of papers that were presented at the conference – many of them in poster sessions [PDF] – Adam has selected just a tiny handful: the most salacious, sensational, and terrifying (or that can be billed as such) at the expense of investigating the nuances to the arguments about what is or isn’t true, and what to do about it, and presented this highly polarised perspective as an account of what ‘science says’.
To pluck just one of Adam’s stories from the pile, on the Thursday he was claiming that ‘severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in’ and that ‘people will not be able to adapt to a much warmer climate as well as previously thought’. The story was based on a paper presented by Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, who adds human physiology into the climate models to suggest that ‘physiological limits of the human body will begin to render places impossible to support human life if the average global temperature rises by 7C on pre-industrial levels’. While predictions about the physiological constraints on our ability to tolerate high temperatures might be very useful, in itself, it says nothing about our ability to inhabit these places – and even less about our ability to ‘adapt to a much warmer climate’. After all, here in Northern Europe we wouldn’t survive the winter if we didn’t have homes to go to. We don’t know whether Sherwood made these claims, or if they are Adam’s own original contribution to ‘the science’, but either way it demonstrates a complete failure to scrutinise and question what are preliminary research findings.
By Friday, David had decided to speak for scientists on the Guardian’s podcast.
Climate change warning: ‘We’re sick of having our messages lost in political noise’
The message might sound familiar is that we have to act, and that we have to act now. But I think the scientists, they have been saying it for a while, and we’ve been saying it in the media for a while… but I think the scientists have lost a little bit of patience almost. I mean one said to me here that we’re sick of having our carefully constructed messages lost in the political noise. You know this is the scientific community standing up and saying enough is enough, we’ve lost patience, get your act together.
We have to take David’s word for it that he wasn’t one of those people losing the ‘carefully constructed messages’ in the political noise. We’ve said it before, the likes of David Adam, who aren’t scientists and clearly have a lot of sympathy with environmentalism, like environmentalists, don’t recognise their own noise as political. It is curious that none of the 2,500 attendees – natural scientists, social scientists, activists, dignitaries, corporates and journalists – had lost sufficient patience to go on the record to evince their frustration and impatience, and the only people he can get to confirm his message are Nicholas Stern and Rajendra Pachauri – neither of them climate scientists.
One climate scientist who does make a distinction between science and political noise is Professor Mike Hulme. Writing on Roger Pielke Jr’s Prometheus blog, Hulme wonders about the kind of ‘action’ that Adam was calling for on behalf of scientists:
What exactly is the ‘action’ the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions? I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognized as such.
David Adam might want to reflect on his own words more carefully. Perhaps the frustrated scientists he was taking evidence from were talking more about him, than to him. Hulme continues:
But then we need to be clear about what authority these political messages carry. They carry the authority of the people who drafted them – and no more. Not the authority of the 2,500 expert researchers gathered at the conference. And certainly not the authority of collective global science. Caught between summarizing scientific knowledge and offering political interpretations of such knowledge, the six key messages seem rather ambivalent in what they are saying. It is as if they are not sure how to combine the quite precise statements of science with a set of more contested political interpretations.
These six statements were issued after the conference by its organisers. Clearly they moved David Adam, but not Mike Hulme, who points out that the authors are not qualified to speak for the conference as a whole, and that no synthesis was produced, and nor was the conference capable of producing a synthesis.
It therefore seems problematic to me when such lively, well-informed and yet largely unresolved debates among a substantial cohort of the world’s climate change researchers gets reduced to six key messages, messages that on the one hand carry the aura of urgency, precision and scientific authority – ‘there is no excuse for inaction’ – and yet at the same time remain so imprecise as to resolve nothing in political terms.
It’s worth reading Mike Hulme’s post in full, rather than reading snippets that we’ve borrowed in order to illustrate David Adam’s ridiculous alarmism.
Hulme qualifies as neither a ‘sceptic’ nor a ‘denier’, and sensibly advises that science and politics are not the same thing. This nuanced argument is lost on David Adam. The problem is that throughout his prose is the theme that the images he presents and studies he cites are instructive… ‘we have to act, and we have to act now’. This urgency is also the theme of so many climate activists, politicians and commentators.
Adam’s alarm is premature, and it stems from an expectation of science that it simply cannot live up to. As Hulme puts it:
A gathering of scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change. But then why should it? All that can be told – and certainly should be told – is that climate change brings new and changed risks, that these risks can have a range of significant implications under different conditions, that there is an array of political considerations to be taken into account when judging what needs to be done, and there are a portfolio of powerful, but somewhat untested, policy measures that could be tried.
The rest is all politics. And we should let politics decide without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity.
It is striking that while – judging by his podcast – Adam seems to have picked up on the frustrations expressed by certain scientists about the lack of nuance, he hasn’t the faintest clue what it means. He hears murmurings about the messy overlap between science and politics, and yet seems so immersed in his model of the world as one that will be the death of us all that he doesn’t know what to do with that information. He ends up interpreting the frustration about lack of nuances as a signal that everything should be blacker and whiter – as if the nuance that has been lost from the debate is that we are all going to die. Adam wants science to settle the political debate, and he wants it now
And here is where we think Hulme’s otherwise excellent observations stop short. He doesn’t attempt to explain why politicians, activists and journalists like Adam have such expectations of science.
As we have argued previously, the dynamic driving the climate debate is less about what has emerged from climate science, and more about what appear to be political agendas. As Hulme observes, in many instances, politics is prior to science in the debate. But it might be truer to say that it is a lack of politics that is prior to the science. Science – or rather images of catastrophe given scientific credibility – fills the void. It re-orientates the disoriented, gives moral purpose in a world beset far less by climate problems than moral relativism, and gives political significance to causes that have long lacked rebels.
No field of science is immune to being used to fill politics-shaped holes. Science is seen less as a valuable tool with which to improve humanity’s lot and open our minds, and becoming a blunt instrument with which to beat the opposition. Campaigners on all sides of abortion debates increasingly fall back on science to make their moral case. The fact of evolution by natural selection has become almost synonymous with atheism. Depending on who you talk to, genetic technologies will feed the world or turn it to grey sludge. But it is environmental science – and its resonance with our sense of futility – that has gained by far the most political purchase.
David Adam’s work typifies this symptom. Being able only to see the world through the prism of climate change represents a failure to sustain a coherent analysis and a lack of confidence in even his own subjectivity – hence appeals to scientific authority. For Adam, climate change distinguishes right from wrong, left from right, good from bad. Just as each major UK political party has absorbed environmentalism into its manifesto, so too have journalists used it to inform the entirety of their own perspective on the world. This limited form of discourse is not about engagement with or criticism of the decision-making processes and the direction of society, it is about causal inevitabilities and moral imperatives issued by ‘the science’. ‘Science says…’.
The result is politics, ethics, democracy stripped entirely of their human meaning. Climate change rescues mediocrity and intellectual poverty from obscurity, and puts them centre stage, dressed as a super-heroes. As Adam shows, writing ‘worse than previously thought’ often enough turns you into a full time employee of the Guardian, and turns climatology into ethical and political science. If climate change didn’t generate moral imperatives, it would leave room for debate. And debate is for the ‘deniers’, who want to profit from the end of the world, or something.
In his most recent article, Adam entirely uncritically quotes the economist (and not climate scientist) Nick Stern:
Speaking after giving a keynote speech, Stern said he feared that politicians had not grasped the seriousness of the crisis. “Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. Looking back, the Stern review underestimated the risks and underestimated the damage from inaction.”
Just a few decades ago, World Bank economists, even ex-world bank economists (such as Stern) were just about the epitome of evil for radicals, liberals, and leftists. The World Bank served Western corporate interests at the expense of developing nations. Today, Stern is celebrated by radicals, liberals and lefties, while he advances the climate change cause, and positions himself to take financial advantage of the carbon markets created by the regulations that he was instrumental in devising, which foist ‘sustainability’ on both the developed and developing world. Stern knows full well that governments have not failed to act. His own government, for example, has committed the UK to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, and the US is on course to do the same.
With all countries apparently committed to ‘action’ on climate change, the rhetorical escalation emerging at this conference is perhaps puzzling. What country is standing against an agreement at the next climate talks in Copenhagen?
We have previously speculated that the preparedness for an international deal on climate change presents campaigners with a problem. If everyone agrees, what role do you play, as an activist/scientist? By achieving an agreement, you undermine your role. Adam, who saw the world through the prism of climate change, no longer has a footing. Like Stern, he therefore has to reinvent his position. It’s ‘worse than previously thought’ and ‘governments don’t understand’. Because in a world defined by, and seen only through the climate change debate, once the principal debate is over, you also lose your orientation and perspective. If everyone is committed, you cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong, because the debate is no longer polarised. Eyes that are filtered green, cannot see anything in a world that is entirely green. They are blind.
It seems that the alarmism issued by the likes of Adam, Stern, and the conference organisers’ six statements represent a bizarre rear-guard action, not against prevailing forces of inaction, but their own blindness, and their own redundancy. They are fighting their own success.
There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches ? economic, technological, behavioural, management ? to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.
Previously, Professor Hulme has spoken about ‘climate porn’ – the tendency of activists, journalists and politicians to use the most distressing images, worst-case scenarios, and single studies stripped of their caveats and cautions. But there is another sense in which this expression illuminates the climate debate. Climate porn is to debate what porn is to human relationships. It simulates drama and engagement by crudely satisfying base lusts and fantasies with explicit images without the danger of rejection. But it is principally an inconsequential solo pastime in which understanding and negotiation with anothers is avoided. It achieves no resolution or synthesis, and objectifies humans, their ambitions and desires. Worst still, to paraphrase what the adage warns, climate porn will make you blind.