Climate Change Politics: Science's Pimp

by | Feb 14, 2013

Ed Davey made some revealing comments at his presentation at the Royal Society this week. James Delingpole has given Davey’s words the treatment they probably deserve, pointing out that the Royal Society has ‘jumped the shark’. Says Dellers,

The Royal Society – founded 1660; former motto “Nullius In Verba” – this week strapped on a giant pair of waterskis and leapt over an enormous shark swimming in the pond in nearby St James’s Park. The shark, whose name is Ed Davey, is believed to have been lured over from Westminster aquarium to perform bizarre tricks for the amusement and delight of the Royal Society’s membership.

I think James may have it slightly wrong here — not that it matters to his criticism, which I think correctly identifies the absurdity of the relationship between the science academy and the government, and the Secretary of State’s childish framing of the climate debate.

Says Davey,

It is fair to say that trust in politicians is not something the public has in abundance.

That is why, when it comes to climate change, it is so important that all the rigours of the scientific method are applied.

This gives us some important clues about what is really going on in the climate debate, which is helped by Delingpole’s ‘jumping the shark’ metaphor.

It probably needs no explaining here, but ‘jumping the shark’ is an allusion to the attempt to reverse falling viewing figures for the ’70s TV show, Happy Days. Like many TV series, the attempt to revive the show forced the writers to ever more desperate measures, only serving to demonstrate instead the terminal condition of the franchise.

There is a curious parallel, then, between the viewing figures for Happy Days in the late 1970s, and the UK public’s estimation of politicians in 2013. ‘Trust in politicians is not something the public has in abundance’. So call in the writers…

It should set alarm bells ringing. Those bells should be ringing most loudly at the Royal Society. Eyebrows should have been raised… ‘Did you hear that, Paul, Davey wants us to write him a script’.

Davey’s words reveal the dynamic that is driving the climate debate. He wants the authority of science; his own authority, as a member of the minority party in an unpopular coalition government, in a historically dire political situation, is non existent. If this blog has said nothing else in the past six years, it is that ‘science’ has been recruited into a political campaign to save the political establishment from the public. This takes two forms: first taking a mandate from science, rather than securing legitimacy through democratic processes; second, building supranational political institutions above democratic control. in this way, sovereignty is taken away from individuals and from national governments. To be seen to be doing the right thing, then, is more important than to be seen doing it in the right way…

That it is the science that drives policy.

And that we hear loud and clear from the experts.

When the scientists tell us that the evidence proves that smoking is addictive and can cause a whole host of deadly medical conditions from emphysema to heart disease, we believe them.

We try to give up, we hope our children never start.

When scientists tell us to that prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultra-violet rays can lead to cancer, we believe them, because their views are based on strong evidence.

We take precautions, we avoid sun burn, we cover up, use sun cream.

So if we have this trust in scientific evidence, why would we make an exception when it comes to the science of climate change?

When it comes to assessing the health of our planet’s eco-system – we should listen to the scientists – and we should believe them.

The logic here appears to be that, because we know that too much exposure to the sun can lead to an increased likelihood of skin cancer, the IPCC/UNFCCC process is legitimate.

Turning to scepticism, Davey makes an even stranger remark:

As President Obama said last month:

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

And Sir John also talked about how our hope must be to limit climate change – preventing us passing a potentially catastrophic tipping point – a great threat to life.

Because the stark fact is this – climate change is happening.

Maybe climate change is happening. But Roger Pielke Jr. has a handy button that can be pressed at such times as these, referring the statements such as Davey’s to the IPCC’s SREX report…

“There is medium evidence and high agreement that long-term trends in normalized losses have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic climate change”
“The statement about the absence of trends in impacts attributable to natural or anthropogenic climate change holds for tropical and extratropical storms and tornados”
“The absence of an attributable climate change signal in losses also holds for flood losses”

The report even takes care of tying up a loose end that has allowed some commentators to avoid the scientific literature:

“Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

I expect the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, and the brilliant minds of the Royal Society to be better able to recall and marshal the facts about climate change than I am, not least because they are all paid much more than I for their abilities. But perhaps the compact between them causes them to forget what it is science itself has told them. And it gets worse…

It may be as I mentioned earlier that the art of politics is not greatly revered.

But we will need every piece of political artistry we can bring to bear to make sure that we translate this scientific understanding into concrete and effective action to keep climate change within manageable levels.

Action based on the science, the risks and the impacts.

Action to deliver a low carbon way of life.

Rewiring the global economy, becoming more resource efficient while continuing to deliver the economic growth that improves people’s lives.

If you’re a member of the Royal Society — which seems unlikely, because the Royal Society is very good at ignoring its critics — you should, I hope, be able to see Davey’s words as an explicit statement that you are recruited into a political campaign.

But Davey is not the first politician to speak to the Royal Society, of course. In 1998, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke about a new relationship between science and policy,

In studying the system of the earth and its atmosphere we have no laboratory in which to carry out controlled experiments. We have to rely on observations of natural systems. We need to identify particular areas of research which will help to establish cause and effect. We need to consider in more detail the likely effects of change within precise timescales. And to consider the wider implications for policy—for energy production, for fuel efficiency, for reforestation. This is no small task, for the annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide alone is of the order of three billion tonnes. And half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution remains in the atmosphere. We have an extensive research programme at our meteorological office and we provide one of the world’s four centres for the study of climatic change. We must ensure that what we do is founded on good science to establish cause and effect.


The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development.

Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century and one in which I am sure your advice will be repeatedly sought.

Thatcher’s speech is arguably far more lucid than Davey’s. While the former PM speaks in paragraphs, Davey can barely grunt one-line factoids. But what both speeches speak to is the idea of a dependent relationship between the systems of the natural and human worlds. Over the 25 years between the two speeches, that belief became orthodoxy. And it is that orthodoxy that allows Davey to peddle myths about the extent to which climate change signals have been detected, and attributed to humans. And it would seem to be that same orthodoxy that prevents the scientists of the Royal Society from calling him out on it.

The standard caveat that I am usuall forced to include here is that none of this is to say that ‘climate change isn’t happening’, nor that climate change will not be a problem. It’s simply that the likes of Davey inaccurately represent the facts, and relies heavily on the possibility of catastrophic scenarios to make his claims. Moreover, whether or not climate change is happening, the estimate of impact presuppose humanity’s closely dependent relationship with the natural world. The Royal Society’s scientists aren’t just being asked to take sides in a political campaign, they are asked to reproduce the ideology of that campaign. And what will it achieve? The goals of men like Davey are policies — totems to their own power that serve no useful function:

The real prize, the real prize, is to design in long-term emissions reduction through systemic change.

Designing out carbon.

And that is where this Coalition Government has been building on the framework created by the last Labour Administration.

Putting muscle and flesh on the bones of the Climate Change Act.

Turning theory into practice.

Taking forward the practical polices that will create a low carbon economy.

Maximising energy efficiency by overhauling the housing stock through the Green Deal.

Setting up the Green Investment Bank to leverage private sector investment into low carbon.

And now before Parliament a new Energy Bill – an ambitious long-term plan for a major reform of our electricity market to help ensure we deliver on our emissions reductions commitments, and attract the right investment for low carbon infrastructure – creating jobs and growth in the process.

Let us remind ourselves that Davey knows that politicians are unpopular. And yet he seeks global agreements on climate, to extend the UK Climate Change Act, to reorganise the productive economy, to continue to make energy expensive. For a man who knows his mandate is weak, he shows no signs of humility. Never mind that the existing legislation designed to protect the climate has failed to work on its own terms, has made life harder for people, and has many critics within even the green camp, Davey asks the scientists to defend him against criticism. And those we might expect to speak truth to power seem to have been flattered by power asking for their favours. He frames the debate for them…

You know, when I am confronted by some of the most dogmatic and blinkered people who deny that climate change is happening, I am reminded of the sentiment of the famous USA Today cartoon.

“If we really are wrong about climate change, we will have created a better world for nothing”.

In reality, those who deny climate change and demand a halt to emissions reduction and mitigation work, want us to take a huge gamble with the future of every human being on the planet, every future human being, our children and grand children, and every other living species.

We will not take that risk.

It should be an insult to the intelligence of the members of the organisation that is founded on the basis of its members’ intelligence. In reality, critics of climate change policy are as concerned about their children as any other person. Davey persuades the scientific academy with cheap moral point-scoring.

If the scientists buy Davey’s crude moral story of baddies versus goodies, it will be another demonstration that the Royal Society no longer takes its motto seriously. The gamble they are taking is with the future of trust in science. Trust in science will go the way that trust in politicians went, for the same reasons.


  1. TinyCO2

    People trust scientists – so goes the theory. Well they did. When you are very much at the disadvantage in a discussion with another person, you have little choice but to accept their expertise unless you’re being contrary. People trusted the clergy because they could read the Bible. People trusted doctors because they wielded skills you couldn’t comprehend. People trusted scientists because they had a kind of boffin mystique. As an early IT engineer I was awarded an awe I didn’t really deserve. Knowing more than another person doesn’t make you a better person.

    But things have changed and it is now the public who can claim the ‘Nullius In Verba’ motto. OK, sometimes it’s misplaced and there’s a rich vein of trust in all sorts of stupid crackpottery in reaction to science but in many ways it’s science’s own fault. The medical profession in particular have used the ‘trust me I’m an expert’ way too often. They should have used ‘this is the best we’ve got right now, take it or leave it’ but it doesn’t have quite the same ring. It’s a popular meme amongst AGW defenders to bring up the ‘you’d trust your surgeon’ argument but when you think about it, who amongst us haven’t had our trust in the medical profession severely damaged at some point or other?

    It’s a time when scientists and the Royal Society should be shoring up public confidence in their commitment to honesty, impartiality and old fashioned, boring facts but instead they’re lured by the celebrity of sensational claims and a seat at the political table, where truth is second to persuasion. As one of the few sections of society that retained public trust they will soon discover that once their good name has gone, it won’t come back and no amount of pandering to popular culture with change that.

  2. Mark Piney

    Astute, accurate piece as usual. Congratulations.

    Politicians have no grand narrative to inspire their constituents since the end of the Cold War, but they’ve been provided with (a very gloomy) one by climate activists of various types including politicians such as Gore and Brundtland. And diplomats such as Tickell, academics in their droves, and great piles of NGOs gathering round, trumpeting and feeding from the Green sugar bowl.

    You quote part of Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the Royal Society (1988). It was more coherent than Ed Davey’s but I suspect it wasn’t written, or even at some level believed, by her. At the time she was perhaps flattered by diplomats who appeared to be scientifically literate, and they no doubt they did flattered her. Tickell’s quite clear that he played the, ‘I’m a proper scientist’ card, in a largely unscientific civil service, so listen to me. And went on (as he always does) to tell her ‘what the science says’. And of course, his ‘science’ says doom unless we mend our carbon polluting ways. He boasted about his power over her in 2008 at a Royal Academy meeting so I don;t think I am being fanciful. In the short-term she probably liked the way alarm about carbon dioxide played against coal mining, and supported nuclear power. But she didn’t, until too late, see the huge Green monster she was helping, in a small way, to create.

    Like you I think the Royal Society’s playing with fire. It’s now a bankrupt organisation and has more-or-less sold its soul to activist politics or all kinds.

  3. Craig Loehle

    In fact Davies example of skin cancer is a good counter-example. It has been found that certain diseases (multiple sclerosis I believe is one) are most common in northern latitudes and that dark skinned people in northern latitudes (where they did not evolve) were at greatest risk, and the link was thus established that lack of vitamin D was the cause. The link with skin cancer would lead alarmists to never go outside, thus causing disease. The precautionary principle does not work in the real world.
    I would even suggest that for certain people, the benefits of smoking for being able to handle the stress in their lives might be worth it. If you can’t handle your social life or job with this crutch, who am I to tell you that you must stop? Precautionists want to define what metric “good” outcomes are. Maybe being unemployed is a worse outcome that dying young for some people.

  4. Craig Loehle

    Davies quote: “If we really are wrong about climate change, we will have created a better world for nothing”. Is facile nonsense. It assumes that the stuff you would do to prevent climate change is an unalloyed good. Switching from coal to natural gas is an unalloyed good if gas is cheaper because it is also cleaner, but the greens want to stop fracking (as in France). But putting up windmills is not only more expensive but destabilizes the grid. how does that “create a better world”? It only does when one lives in a reality where symbolic gestures are valuable (i.e., in the world of politics).

  5. geoff Chambers

    Davey seems to have a naive mechanistic view of the way society works which mirrors his naive mechanistic view of the way the climate works. He can be excused for making the kind of errors which Craig Loehle identifies (though his audience can’t). Thinking that appealing to scientific authority will somehow make the public’s trust in scientists rub off on politicians is frankly bizarre.
    In fact, Davey’s appeal is not so much to science as to expertise; I suspect he imagines the job of scientists to be producing graphs – a sophisticated version of graphic design.
    The figures for public trust in the different professions can be found here
    There’s remarkably little change in most cases, though priests and pollsters are on the way down, and civil servants, remarkably, on the way up. There are many absurdities, of course. For instance, tv newsreaders are trusted by three times more people than journalists – in the same way I suppose that people trust Waitrose (who sell them crap) but not Romanian abattoirs (who’ve done nothing wrong).
    My interpretation is that people tend to trust those professions which they see as valuable and necessary. If a doctor gets it wrong, or your child’s teacher is rubbish, you feel the effect immediately, while an incompetent journalist or politician has no immediate effect on your life.
    It’s worth reading the speech at Alex’s Mytranscriptbox, since it turns the bullet points back into proper prose, as Davey’s civil servants presumably wrote it. There’s an almost Maoist self-abasement in it – not before the will of the people, but the will of the experts.

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