Thoughts on Climategate r1

by | Dec 1, 2011

I thought it might be worthwhile posting this presentation I gave in Edinburgh in Spring last year, following the first Climategate. It seems to me that the same is true of Climategate 2 as was true of the first: if there had been a more transparent debate, Climategate would not have have had the impact is has had. Some are calling for transparency in science, which I agree with, but I think it is a mistake to believe that even completely transparent science would answer the debate. It would make it harder to hide environmentalism’s political and ethical claims, perhaps, but it would be no guarantee, either of that or a bit more reflection on certain claims and why they exist, not just in the climate debate, but more widely also. For instance, the precautionary principle, and the deference to science, and the prostitution of its authority aren’t at all exclusive to the climate debate, but are almost ubiquitous in contemporary politics.

We often get comments on Climate Resistance that ask us what qualifications to speak about climate change I and my colleague, Stuart Blackman, have.

Neither of us are climate scientists.

To take issue with the moral and political arguments that emerge from the climate debate, is seen as equivalent to taking issue – to denying – climate science.

What I think this speaks most loudly about is the weight of expectations that climate science has to bear.

What makes climate science’s relationship with the social political sphere special and unusual, compared to other forms of science is that there is so much moral and political capital invested in the idea of a climate catastrophe.

It seems to me that that something like Climategate was bound to happen, and will continue to happen in the form of things like as Glaciergates and Africagates for instance as people start to see what climate science is and isn’t capable of producing for their moral and political arguments.

George Monbiot is one of my favourite writers, because you can always find something to say about what he says. And the thing I’ve chosen today is that George Monbiot believes that gay people are more moral than straight people, because they won’t produce any carbon-emitting babies.

I’m not pointing it out to say that gay people are immoral, but because I don’t see how they can be any more or less ‘moral’ than people who happen to be born straight.  This is just a bizarre moral framework.

We also hear from the likes of the New economics foundation and the green party that there are just ten years left to save the planet. If you go to the NEF website, you can even hear the clock ticking, down from 100 months.

According to Susan Watts, the science… Science!… Editor of BBC Newsnight, ‘scientists have calculated that Obama has four years in which to save the planet

So these are the kind of arguments people are trying to support with climate science.

But it is not just journos and activists. This is academics from many different disciplines,

Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine tells us that fat people contribute more to climate change than thin people do. Because as they get fatter, they enter a positive feedback system, in which they increasingly use labour-saving devices to cart their increasingly fat bodies around, as they become less and less physically able. So they use escalators, lifts, cars, etc, pumping out CO2 all the while.

Using carbon is the equivalent of slavery, according to Jean-Francois Mouhot, a historian at the University of Birmingham.  If we compare our current attitude to fossil fuels and climate change with the behaviour of the slave owners, there are more similarities than one might immediately perceive.

There are now special climate change ‘ethics’, that occupy the minds of philosophers. The scientific certainty that we are destroying the planet has made black and white the moral questions that have haunted moral thinkers since ancient times.

This cheap moral realism gives purpose to special climate change psychologists, who are employed to find out why the moral message isn’t getting through to the public.

They set about working out how to communicate climate change to people who don’t believe it, and try to locate the processes that may be going on in the heads of those who refuse to believe it… The deniers.

There doesn’t appear to be an area of public life that has not been framed in the terms of climate change. The idea of climate catastrophe has become the prism through which we see ourselves, the world, and our relationship to it.  Everything is captured in this one idea that the world is about to be destroyed.

This is a political and ideological phenomenon, not something which has just emerged from climate science, to which conventional politics has simply responded after considering it carefully.

And yet, if you look at how the arguments within this system are constructed, they nonetheless all begin with the claim that “climate change is happening”. I think this is mistaken view. Not that climate change isn’t happening, but that it is a mistake to [allow] ‘climate change is happening’ [to be] the beginning of all these moral calculations.

What happens at UEA, then, appears to be the keystone of all the arguments that ensue.

And so it is no surprise that this is where people have been focussing their hacking efforts. And it is of no surprise that what has been found reveals that the source of all these moral and political arguments is not so clear cut.

I think sceptics have made a mistake here. And that a peak behind the firewall didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know.

Rather than a process of the science informing the political or otherwise social, the dynamic is the other way round. That is to say that the politics is prior.

Monbiot puts it best: It [the campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.


Monbiot has had to make his apology, because he has invested his entire perspective on the world, in “The Science”.

David Attenborough is even less reflective. He says.

“Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it’s time to control the population to allow the survival of the environment”.

The President of the Royal Society – the organisation that promotes the scientific view of the world, Martin Rees, writes in “our Final Century” that our odds of surviving the next 100 years are just 50/50.

I mention Rees because he was on the Today program this morning, talking about the IPCC review — a review of the review by the reviewers — and it struck me more than ever that Rees’ role was once occupied by people who were proud to speak truth to power. Now, he, the Royal Society, and so many institutions that have attached themselves to the climate issue, instead speak Official Truth FOR official power. And I think that is a dangerous thing.

The sense of overwhelming crisis is being used to give authority to the kind of political ideas I think we ought to reject. These political ideas, since they make a virtue of being anti human, depend instead of our consent, on empirical substance for their moral authority. That substance comes from organisations like of the CRU.

So there are two sense in which the politics is prior to the science.

First, there are the ideological presuppositions that we are powerless to address the things produced by our sense of alarm and imminent doom. We passively accept our fate, and the fate of others.

For instance, the Global humanitarian Forum released a study last year which claimed that 300,000 people a year die from the effects of climate change. This doubles the WHO’s estimate from 2002. They project that half a million people will die, in 2030, they say, from the same malaria, malnutrition and diarrhoea, caused by climate change. This, they say makes climate change the biggest issue facing mankind.

Never mind the 10 million people who died according to the WHO in the very same report, from first order effects of poverty.

We feel so unable to understand the social world, that the only way we can conceive of its problems is by naturalising them through ideas about the environment and climate change.

Second, there are the searches for authority in the statistics and projections such as those produced at the CRU.

The academy, government, and the media each seem to have rooted themselves in this crisis, and define themselves by it.

The crisis gives orientation to journalists who are disoriented by a world that no longer divides into left and right, and East and West.

It breathes new life into dusty old academic departments who have had relevance and targets foisted upon them from above.

And it gives the government legitimacy in a time when no one can be ‘bovvered’.

Finally, then, in order to make productive sense of what the science ‘says’, we need to be sure that we know what science has been asked, and what it has been told, and what it is really studying.

The climate crisis — and all of its little debates and fights like Climategate– are a projection of much deeper problems and crises in society.


  1. Black Briton

    “Using carbon is the equivalent of slavery, according to Jean-Francois Mouhot, a historian at the University of Birmingham. If we compare our current attitude to fossil fuels and climate change with the behaviour of the slave owners, there are more similarities than one might immediately perceive.”

    This astounding lack of perspective makes me literally feel sick. How can you (J-F M) equate exploiting an entire racial group to exploiting a mineral resource. It’s dehumanising and effectively saying slaves (and by extension all humans) have the same value as oil or trees and ice sheets. Amazing!

  2. geoffchambers

    And right on cue, along comes Monbiot with an article (co-authored with Mark Lynas) which makes exactly your point.
    Monbiot claims, over and over, that the science is all that matters. (He has a philatelist’s view of science; it’s a massive collection of tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles, in his view. So if you have to drop a few, because Phil Jones has been naughty, it doesn’t matter, because you’ve still got more the the other lot).
    Yet when he comes to treat the subject of global warming, he never mentions the science. The authors are defending tooth and nail their belief in the imminent disappearance of the Maldives. Why are they so sure? Because the editor of the Spectator is an arts graduate, because Nils-Alexis Mörner believes in dowsing and published in a journal owned by Lyndon Larouche.
    Monbiot and Lynas’s one sop to science is to link to the official sea level rise data for the Maldives. At one site the sea level is rising by 3mm a year, as the IPCC says; at the other, the rise is zero, as Mörner says.
    The big joke is that three years ago the Guardian published several articles about the real problem facing the Maldives – pollution caused by the immense influx of tourists to this island paradise.
    and has described the solution they’ve found – build more islands – one to keep the rubbish, and another to house the native population out of sight of the tourists.
    Mark Lynas knows this. He was the official representative of the Maldives at Copenhagen. But he prefers to cling to belief in his precious 3mm per year sea level rise. To him it’s more “real” than the lives of the hundreds of thousands of vicitims of Western fashion for honeymoons on tropical islands.

  3. Ben Pile

    Geoff, you make some great points. The noises from Ward, Monbiot and Lynas about Nils-Alexis Mörner’s Spectator article have been quite undignified. The comment about Lynas is especially interesting.

    Lynas tweeted to Barry woods a few hours ago (in a discussion about sea level rise, the Spectator article, and the Maldives, the government of which he ‘advises’).

    @Realclim8gate Am very aware of the numbers! That’s why we need comprehensive treaty, including all major emitters. Yes, got rooms thanks!

    I asked him,

    @mark_lynas are you not concerned about the democratic deficit created by this search for international ‘agreement’? @Realclim8gate

    He replied,

    @clim8resistance No, not in the slightest bit concerned about that.

    So I pressed him further:

    @mark_lynas Is that because you’re not concerned with democracy?


    @mark_lynas I.e. perhaps you’re not concerned about powerful political institutions not being subject to democratic control?

    At this point — it seems — he went to catch his plane to Durban. This is a shame, because it would have been interesting to hear his reply. It seems there is a scientific question to be answered, in spite of Morner’s alleged dabbling in woo-woo, which as you rightly say, Geoff, is used to avoid the discussion.

    I don’t know a great deal about the Maldives and their sensitivity to sea level, but as Barry Woods/@realclim8gate points out, 3mm sea level rise a year turns out to be 18cm. Hardly the stuff of disaster B-movie plots. Not good news, of course, but ought to mediate the alarmism and political urgency. Nonetheless, my point about democracy is that these supra-democratic international agreements seem to need victims: Maldivians, perhaps; problems, in other words, which are not amenable to democratic solutions. ‘Global solutions need global problems’. Isn’t Lynas, in his mission, making instrumental use of Maldivians’ putative victim status?

    I don’t think Lynas has given it a moment’s thought, just as he hasn’t considered the implications for democracy created by hugely powerful supranational institutions.

  4. Mooloo

    If Lynas was particularly concerned about democracy, he wouldn’t be their representative.

    Maldives is ranked by Transparency International as similarly corrupt to Pakistan and Sierra Leone.

    If Lynas gets any money for them, by bludgeoning the West with guilt, you can be fairly sure almost none of it will make it to the actual people.

    Surely he knows that is likely. But his purpose is the bludgeoning of the West, not improving the life of the Maldivians.

  5. Barry Woods

    Mark had said on his blog that he gets $1,500 a month for his part time, Maldives Climate Change Advisor role….

  6. geoffchambers

    Black people, fat people, parents – these articles manage to offend just about everyone. You need to look at the context, why they’re published, the reaction they’re expected to evoke etc in order to understand them.
    “Academic says something stupid” is part of the staple diet of the popular right-wing press, in order to show how daft intellectuals are and how they’re wasting taxpayers’ money. But these articles appear now in the Guardian as part of a totally different discourse – roughly the left/liberal belief that all our actions have a moral dimension. This is the attitude Cyril Connolly satirised when he said of George Orwell that he couldn’t wipe his bottom without thinking of the conditions of the workers in the toilet paper factory. This left-wing tic has been given a scientific base by global warming. You can now measure the guilt of every action in terms of molecules of carbon emitted.
    The desire to give a moral dimension to every act is so peculiar that it demands an explanation in terms of psychology (cue PeterS) but also in terms of social history. The decline of religion clearly leaves a moral vacuum, not satisfactorily fillled by politics. Since the second world war, few sensible people have been tempted by millenarian political visions. We thought we could settle down to a cosy, boring discussion between centre left and centre right about how best to run our societies. Those who needed something more inspiring could find it by joining Oxfam or Amnesty International.
    How we got from there to measuring our carbon footprint and comparing it to the slave trade is a mystery.

  7. Ben Pile

    Geoff – How we got from there to measuring our carbon footprint and comparing it to the slave trade is a mystery.

    It’s perhaps a problem with consensus politics. Once you sit down with the intention of finding agreement, there’s a tendency to institutionalise the exclusion of disagreement. It leaves the real questions about ‘what is there to talk about’ and ‘what should we do’ largely unanswered. Discussion can only proceed from things that don’t provoke disagreement: ie. largely phantom problems. It essentially involves depriving politics and debate of substance: dialectic.

  8. cdc

    Well, contrary to what George the Monbiot believes, homosexuals are not “greener” in that they do not indulge in “carbon-emitting babies”. We are all “carbon-emitting grown-ups”, should we commit suicide? see here : . Many homosexual couple *pine* for children, and who am I to blame them? They may marry and adopt children here in Belgium, and having children for a female homosexual couple is not in any way a problem. Technology. For male couples, it’s a bit more of a hurdle, but nothing really daunting, as there are many women who are donors (outside of adoption). This is happening, and without any criticism from my part, my wife and I having adopted our children for reasons completely disconnected from Malthusian creed.
    I like your stuff…

  9. Lewis Deane

    Don’t you think, Ben, we are at very critical juncture? A time (I don’t mean to tease!) that a lifetime of ‘revolutionary’ thinking prepared us for but we are always, of course, unprepared for. Exciting but enervating and, ultimately, that might show how ‘impotent’ ‘rational’, beautifully thought out positions become then wholly irrelevant. How does one not despair when we no longer have a resource to ‘ideology’ or a ‘group’ that might be in ‘opposition’. One is isolated, like at school against the bullies, and saves ones dignity but not anyone else’s. O well!

    Anyone, a copy and paste of my comment on Jack Straws article in the Telegraph, if you think it’s relevant:

    I think we should be quite afraid. It isn’t because Germany wishes to ‘aggrandise’ or ‘subvert’ democracies’ – far from it – it is because Germany must pay attention to it’s own democratic base and, yet, within the European context, is so big and so powerful. This is very much Bismarck days and business as usual – and, in that sense, it is consoling. But the overwhelming power that Germany now has, within Europe, must mean it has overwhelming responsibility. Not, first of all, to impose it’s own version of political-economy on it’s neighbours merely because it has the power to do so. Germany and to a lesser extent France, it’s seeming ‘yes man’, have a tremendous, historic responsibility here to see that nothing is more important than democracy and the ability of half-sovereign people to determine their own existence. Nothing is more important than holding true to the founding principles of our modern democratic era – that of democracy. You break that, however ‘temporarily’, then everything else is pointless. Let then the Euro hang – on a disaffected public that is sullen and ready to explode. Think!

  10. Lewis Deane

    Ben and Geoff, I think your discussion, though somewhat academic (!?), is fascinating. I always fall back on my own ‘occult’ explanation, gathered from an eclectic reading and an autodidactic education: That of ‘European Nihilism’, a general direction towards ‘x’, because any ‘x’ is better than none. Sans all the ‘best’ ‘explanations’ and ‘sans’ thinking, all that one has is a drift of feeling and, because one must ‘feel’ something, one feels ‘everything’! Not an explanation but a characterisation, which in today’s discourse, is indistinguishable.

  11. Lewis Deane

    Further, It is always painful to ones vanity that ‘this’ debate can be characterised in the obtuse senses in which they do. Keith Kloor, had an interesting provocation about whether American ‘skeptics’ where ‘right-wing’ nutters and Europeans more ‘rational’. But, hence, my posts above. I, personally, cannot be defined. My parents and my grand parents always voted for Labour. But I sometimes call my self an ‘Aristocratic anarchist'(?). Prince Charles loves the ante-antediluvianism of the more extreme Greens and yet won’t allow a windmill to blight his view. Osbourne, the other day, not if it harms our competitiveness! There is no connection between McIntyre, Watts, Ben Pile, ‘Bishop Hill’ or myself, or you Geoff, except that one of civic outrage! And yet we are all thrown in the bucket and have to smell the fish, apparently!

  12. Lewis Deane

    And I know this is of topic, but I’ll say it anyway:

    We have a pretty nasty conspiracy going on. Germany and ‘France’ propose, the S&P threatens to downgrade, and, therefore, everyone complies. It happened with Greece, it happened with Italy etc etc and now it’s the whole of the EU. It’s such a nakedly obvious tactic that one can remove ones tin hat. But will the heroic and late liberated nations of the East, for instance, allow this con to continue? One hopes, with all ones democratic heart, not!

  13. Lewis Deane

    I walk down my street and my courage fails,
    Has failed. It isn’t that the key in my hand
    Will no longer work – the police and the other officious guardians
    Of our fate will have ‘permission’ to slot in the key
    And turn the key and open that garden of butterfly’s
    And June days but also muddy winters and alone
    London – but I am now excluded and know that,
    Whatever I do, as a human being, is suspicious.
    So cowardly, I divert to the local pub and smoke
    My death giving fag outside.

  14. George Carty

    A comment from the Atomic Insights blog gives another suggestion of how environmentalism can be useful to the establishment:

    You have to remember that the marginals in Europe join the Green movements. The governments encourage this as it keeps those extremists off the real issues.

    This way, they can have their violence outburts, their picketings without really bothering the big boys in power.

  15. Lewis deane

    Someone once said to Heinrich Heine “That’s viscous nonsense!” but he answered “Yes but isn’t it beautifully written!”. Not to compare myself with the divine Heine and, of topic, but as, I think, an apt bene note to my above comment about those ‘baleful’ Germans ( a ‘nation’ that never was a nation and, therefore, should never be one!) and in reply to a German objection, here’s an addenda:

    To (Keith Kloors post, “green Woo’) #53 ob,

    I’m not anti-German. My educators were German. My best friends have been German. My girl friends have been German. I just know history, deeply and painfully. What confuses people about the Germans, if one can talk about a nation without being considered racist, is the notion that technocratic facility, the so called ‘efficiency’, equals ‘rationality’. On the contrary, just as with the British reductionist utilitarianism, and, as Freud, an Austrian, long ago noted, it is a symptom of deep irrationality, a hinterland, a black forest of violence and stupidity that is always there. Now, that would be OK if Germany were merely Switzerland, but Germany is always both to big and to small. It both contains itself and does not contain itself. It was perfect as a patchwork of Principalities and kingdoms, when Goethe sang and Schiller played, when Heinrich Heine was the sweetest voice of Europe, but ever since those damn Prussians and the Franco-German war of 1870, we’ve been having ‘troubles’. O well.

    For see the irrationality:

    ‘ The nuclear lobby and the ‘nuclear’ lobbied industries f*ck up”

    Only in the sense, that in a deeply irrational, hostile country any ‘rational’ debate is bound to f*ck up, ob. That is a country were the ‘miasma’ of ‘radiation’ exists and is anathema to a neurotic ‘cleanliness’.

    I’ll leave with just an anecdote: Hitching, 20 years ago, from my beloved Czech Republic back to England, I noted, with irony and irritation, the difference in public conveniences. Starting in Prague, the usually graffiti and male mess, but in Germany, oh no, two (two! Why two?) haus fraus, who kept everything spotlessly clean, until finally liberated in Holland and once again our honest, graffitied mess. That’s always been the difference – do you want spotless latrines or freedom. So, yes, I’m hostile!

  16. Lewis Deane

    ‘if one can talk about a nation without being racist’

    I should have said, you started it first. Yes you did, you invaded Poland! Ha ha!

  17. anterlynace

    I wanted to know what can workers a bee in single’s brio so that’s forth it not who could not give an true answer.



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