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The new climate-change denialism: Who promotes it, and how to answer it
By Renfrey Clarke
October 15, 2010 – You remember the scandal provoked by the errors and exaggerations in the 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? And you know all about the even bigger “Climategate” scandal last year, when stolen emails revealed that leading climate scientists were manipulating data to fit their alarmist political agenda? Now we have the next instalment. In a new Guide to the Science of Climate Change the world’s top science body, Britain’s Royal Society, has quit playing politics and stopped peddling its claims of looming disaster.
Believe it? You shouldn’t. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report was eventually shown to have included just one significant error of fact, relating to the likely melting time of Himalayan glaciers. That was in a dense work of well over 1000 pages. The scientists accused in the so-called “Climategate” were later proved innocent by a series of inquiries – but not before the myth that climate researchers were self-interested and untrustworthy had circled the globe.
Now the planet killers are trying it on again. This time the ploy is more ingenious. It goes like this: slander and harass the scientific community to the point where its more timid members start to wilt. Then tout their retreats and compromises as “evidence” that calls for determined action to limit climate change are no more than political play making.
The latest brouhaha had its origins early this year when, as related on May 28 by the Science Insider website, 43 of the Royal Society’s 1450-odd fellows sent the organisation a letter “protesting that some of the society’s statements, including ones in a pamphlet called ‘Climate Change Controversies’ and comments by Robert May, then president of the society, were oversimplified.”
“The Royal Society has not yet released the letter”, Science Insider continued, “and the authors of it have not identified themselves publicly”.
It is important to note what kind of body the Royal Society is. In effect, it is Britain’s academy of sciences. Nominally independent but funded from the public purse, it provides the government with advice on science policy, as well as disbursing research grants and acting as a general lobbyist and booster for the scientific community. But it does not itself perform research, and should not be regarded as the final source of authority on scientific findings. That role belongs to the scientists themselves, in their universities and research institutes.
The society’s earlier-mentioned Climate Change Controversies pamphlet set out to refute familiar climate-sceptic arguments, aiming at a popular readership. The pamphlet’s science was presented in pared-down terms, so as to be accessible to non-scientists. Nevertheless, the contrarians pounced. In an atmosphere tense with recollections of the manufactured IPCC and Climategate “scandals”, someone in the Royal Society then panicked. Was the society next in line for a media-fuelled anti-science beat-up? A review panel was set up to examine the society’s publications and statements on climate change.
The seven members of the panel were all scientists, but only three had backgrounds in climate science. The body’s report, in the form of the Guide, was issued on September 30. Among people knowledgeable about global warming, a common initial reaction seems to have been puzzlement, tinged with suspicion that something very odd was occurring within the Royal Society.
It is important to stress that there is nothing in the Guide to really delight people intent on denying the reality of climate change. Present-day concentrations of carbon dioxide, the authors point out, are higher than any identified in the past 800,000 years. Global temperatures are noted as clearly rising, and various lines of evidence are said to “point strongly to human activity being the main reason for the recent increase, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels… enhancing the natural greenhouse effect.”
On core questions such as these, the authors explain, there is little dissent among scientists. Still, climate change is a new field of science with many unresolved controversies. The Guide makes a useful effort to distinguish between areas that are largely settled, others where there is wide consensus but continuing debate, and further areas that are not yet well understood or quantified. The latter are said to include aspects of the physics of clouds; the potential long-term loss of carbon from soils; and the response of ice sheets to rising temperatures.
The point is made explicitly that uncertainties in the science must not be used as an excuse for inaction on climate change. For one thing, the authors warn, real developments may prove more dire than scientists expect: “Uncertainty can work both ways, since the changes and their impacts may be either smaller or larger than those projected.”
The potential impacts of climate change, the Guide concludes, “are sufficiently serious that important decisions will need to be made”. And these decisions, it notes, will still have to be made “in the absence of perfect knowledge”.
From the Royal Society, the people seeking excuses to ignore the global warming message entirely – the cosmic-ray crowd, the hockey-stick deniers – meet with a clear rejection. Nevertheless, the Guide is a strange document. US physicist Joseph Romm, arguably the world’s most influential climate blogger, responded to its publication by rebuking the society for “wasting everyone’s time” by issuing a “bland, pointless and confused” tract.
The overall tone of the Guide suggests intimidation. Earlier statements by the Royal Society on climate change were much more emphatic. Probably the society’s boldest move, shortly before the December 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, was to join with the British Met Office and the National Environment Research Council in a statement which pointed out:
Even since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened… Without coordinated international action on greenhouse emissions, the impacts on climate and civilisation could be severe.
In the Guide, mention of the science since 2007 has substantially vanished, to be replaced with citations from the painstakingly cautious – and now largely out of date – IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The effect is to strip the Royal Society’s utterances of a vital note of urgency.
Astonishingly, the Guide makes no mention of world-leading research performed in Britain during the last few years at the Met Office’s renowned Hadley Centre. On September 28, 2009, the British Guardian reported on a Hadley study warning that “a catastrophic 4ºC rise in temperature could happen by 2060 without strong action on emissions”. Earlier, in December 2008, the Hadley scientists issued a paper concluding that the most likely outcome of allowing “business as usual” emissions rises to continue would be an increase in global temperatures of 5.5ºC (over pre-industrial levels) by 2100. The highest plausible increase, given a 10 per cent chance of occurring, would be a rise of 7.1ºC. Similar modelling results were obtained independently by US scientists in a January 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study.
Importantly, both the Hadley and MIT studies have a strong conservative bias in that they do not model most climate feedbacks – that is, natural impacts of warming which themselves have the potential to further affect temperatures. No account is taken of the melting of Arctic permafrost, known to be capable of releasing vast quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.
For an idea of the likely affects on the global environment of the Hadley Centre’s “most likely” business-as-usual temperature figure, readers can turn to Chapter 6 of Mark Lynas’s book, Six Degrees. The survey of research findings presented there does not augur well for the survival of developed civilisation – or, indeed, of most of humanity. Even for an optimistic “early and rapid decline” scenario, with a fall in human-caused emissions of 47 per cent by 2050, the Hadley researchers project a “most likely” rise of 2.1ºC by 2100 – enough for a wide range of painful outcomes. And that is without the methane.
These projections are not the only area of new science where the Royal Society’s Guide ducks for cover. Its treatment of sea level rise is confused and evasive. Blogger Joseph Romm slates the authors for “ignoring the entire scientific literature on sea level rise of the past three years, a literature that has created a wide consensus (but continuing debate and discussion) around a SLR estimate [by 2100] of 3 to 5 feet [0.9-1.5 metres]”. As if to point up the shortcomings of the Guide, an article on the Science Daily website on October 3 reported on a comprehensive new study of sea levels during the last interglacial period, around 125,000 years ago. With global temperatures about 1.9ºC higher than modern pre-industrial levels, the authors at the University of Exeter concluded, sea levels were 6.6-9.4 metres higher than now. More crucially for today’s human society, the rate of sea level rise during the initial icecap melt was put at a startling 60-90 millimetres per decade, more than twice that observed in recent times.
How could the Royal Society have come up with so unsatisfactory a text? We have some indications from among the drafters themselves. As related by the Science Insider website on May 28, two members of the society’s panel complained anonymously to the BBC that they were expected to reach consensus. “This is a very serious challenge to the way the society operates”, one of the panel members reportedly remarked. “The sceptics have been very strident and well-organised”, noted the other. “It’s not clear to me how we are going to get precise agreement on the wording.”
The pieces fall into place: dumbed-down, out of date, and with gaping omissions, the Guide is the lowest common-denominator work of a mainly non-expert committee containing people with conflicting views, and forced to operate under heavy political pressure. The assertions in the Guide are scientifically verifiable – so far as they go. But it is what the document fails to say that rules it out as a proper account of the science. For the latter, one has to go to the researchers themselves, in places like the Hadley Centre.
None of this has troubled the climate contrarians, whose blogs have seized on the Guide and trumpeted it as “proof” that the scientific establishment has fundamentally rethought its views on climate issues. So too, and to no one’s surprise, has Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper.
In the editorial and articles through which the October 2-3 Weekend Australian takes up the Guide, distortions and misrepresentations of the science abound. More important to spell out here, however, is the political narrative-cum-strategy that is being constructed. Given the influence internationally of the Murdoch media, we can expect that this thinking will inform the next round of assaults in the denialists’ war on climate science.
In a more or less open declaration of bad faith, the Weekend Australian makes a point of quoting leading denialist and Adelaide University professor of mining geology Ian Plimer, whose 2009 book attacking the consensus positions on climate change was mercilessly panned by scientific reviewers. The purpose of allowing Plimer to parade as an authority on global warming can only be to browbeat the climate science community by showing that the Murdoch press can peddle whatever rubbish on the topic it chooses, without fear of retribution.
Paradoxically, the anti-science strategy which the Murdoch editors now urge on their big-business readers involves a retreat from the traditional, full-on denialism of people like Plimer. The contrarians who deny that global warming is happening, or that human actions have anything to do with it, are to be left to twist in the wind. Instead, the new denialism opts for a “softly, softly” approach. Distancing itself from overt loopiness, it seeks to inoculate the public against environmental activism by injecting them with a subtly denatured strain of climate consciousness.
The Weekend Australian now accepts that the Earth is warming, and that humans are “at least partly responsible”. Measured action, marked by a “cautionary, responsible approach”, should be taken where the climate science is clear. As will be seen, “clear” is the crucial word.
More specifically, the new strategy uses the Royal Society’s Guide as its core document, while claiming authority for the society as a fount of original science. Combined with this is a rhetorical assault on the mainstream of climate science as “politicised”. Unlike the fellows of the Royal Society, the impression is constructed that most climate researchers have a radical political agenda and are given to distorting findings to suit their partisan ends.
In particular, the new denialism dismisses “doomsday scenarios”, and talk of catastrophic consequences in general, as politically motivated. Included in the category of “politicised science”, and sharply differentiated from the Guide, is the work of the IPCC. “The society’s cautious approach”, the Weekend Australian argues, “is in contrast to the UN’s 2007 IPCC report”. The latter is described by the newspaper as the latest in a series of “political documents” issued by the IPCC and elevated “to the status of divine prophecy.”
Meanwhile, the new denialist strategy continues the practice of stressing the uncertainties of climate science. The Royal Society’s Guide is cherry picked to play up the uncertainties it identifies. Simultaneously, computer climate modelling is assailed as lacking credibility.
While the findings of climate science are characterised as riddled with uncertainty, the new denialism demands stringent proof that science is “clear” before its lessons are accepted as compelling. “Each hypothesis formulated from empirical evidence”, the Weekend Australian thunders, “needs to be challenged and tested to within an inch of its life before its veracity can be assumed”. Only after these tests have been passed, the implication runs, can action to mitigate global warming be justified. This is the only responsible course, the public is warned, since “economic devastation” could result from ill-advised initiatives.
What, then, does this new approach urge be done in practice about climate change? Nothing, or as near as possible to it. The new denialism is a strategy for business as usual.
Subtle in the manner of focus group-driven political campaigning, the Murdoch media’s new denialism nevertheless rests on a series of whoppers that are readily exposed.
In the first place, it is simply not true that a distinction can be drawn between the “honest”, “spin-free” Guide and the IPCC reports. The truth is the very reverse: the Guide rests implicitly on the IPCC’s work, which it cites repeatedly and to which it retreats as it tries to dodge the scientific findings of the past few years.
The charge that the IPCC’s science is infested with political radicalism is ludicrous. The meatiest criticisms laid against the United Nations body are that its reports have been excessively conservative, and make undue concessions to the UN member governments that have power of veto over IPCC statements. Every assertion in the IPCC’s 2007 report, it should be recalled, had to be signed off by representatives of the Chinese and Saudi governments, and of the Bush administration in the US.
The stress placed on the uncertainties of climate science, meanwhile, is consciously misleading. Presented unadorned to a lay audience, “uncertainty” suggests that the evidence is equivocal or that scientists cannot agree on anything, and can therefore be disregarded when they call for costly emissions cuts. But uncertainty is part and parcel of all the Earth sciences. Dealing with enormously complex systems that cannot be perfectly known, climate scientists must normally state their conclusions in terms of probabilities, of so many per cent likelihoods of particular outcomes. The likelihood of dangerous climate change, though, has long been considered overwhelming.
It is true that the “error bars” have widened in recent times as knowledge has advanced and new sources of imprecision have been discovered. In particular, the incorporating of complex feedbacks into climate models has introduced further uncertainties. But as science journalist Fred Pearce notes in an October 5 Yale Environment 360 article, the increased uncertainty is “especially at the top end” of possible warming outcomes. Ominously, the bottom end has also been creeping upward; in every IPCC Assessment Report since 1995, Pearce shows, the lowest figure given for plausible warming has increased. As we heat the planet, the chance that we will escape with bearable consequences keeps growing more minute.
It is reckless, in any case, to imply that the uncertainties which surround climate science mean that its warnings do not have to be heeded. When you risk losing everything, even a remote possibility of disaster must be taken seriously; meanwhile, the disasters of which the climate scientists warn are not for the most part outside chances. Given business as usual, the Hadley Centre scientists conclude, the likelihood of a (potentially civilisation-ending) 5.5ºC rise in global temperatures by 2100 is put at 50 per cent.
Even in areas where the science cannot yet quantify risk, no one is entitled to count on happy endings. Much is made in denialist writings of scientists’ still-modest grasp of how clouds will affect temperatures in a warming world. Might increased cloudiness act as a cooling feedback, limiting temperature increases? A Yale Environment 360 article on August 30 notes a growing consensus “that clouds will increase, rather than hold back, the warming triggered by greenhouse gases”.
Allied to the new denialism’s misconstruing of uncertainty is its earlier-mentioned attack on computer climate modelling. The IPCC’s calls for emissions cuts are derided by the Weekend Australian as “based on assumptions fed into computer models”.
Actually, the modellers are not so cavalier. Where important variables are unknown – as, for example, with the effectiveness of future emissions reduction schemes – multiple model runs will often be conducted, each testing a plausible scenario. It is false, however, to suggest that the models themselves are not anchored in reality. They are calibrated against hard data, from the instrumental record and increasingly, from the rapidly advancing science of paleoclimatology – the study of climates in the geological past. The test of a good model is its ability to “predict” the known climate record, and the matches obtained are often impressive.
Climate models are still a long way from perfect. When combined with paleoclimatic data, however, they yield by far the most credible pictures humanity has of the future into which today’s climate disruption is thrusting us.
Meanwhile, uncertainty cannot be said to afflict the denialists. Perhaps we could all use a little of their self-belief – which allows them to prefer their hunches and prejudices to the work of thousands of scientists with brilliant minds, decades of training and experience, and supercomputers to boot.
Denying the deniers
How can the new denialism be countered? With this new strategy, outfits like the Murdoch media have in many ways become more formidable opponents. Campaigners against global warming will need to refine their approach, targeting the new, beguiling discourse.
It would be a mistake to accept the softening of the debate which is on offer. The facts dictate the very opposite – the cultivating of a broad sense of horror and outrage. But how to achieve this, when the denialist narrative warns of “alarmism”, depicting it perversely as a means of manipulation?
The key advantage which climate campaigners possess is the fact that the controversy is not ultimately about tone, but about the realities of physical science. The presentation of these realities can be low key, even matter of fact, and the truth will still create its own outrage. Among the crucial weaknesses of the denialists, meanwhile, is the fact that their pose as defenders of the familiar and normal is a sham.
Of the rhetorical tools available to campaigners against climate change, one of the sharpest has earned the name of “global weirding”. In all but the most improbably optimistic of the Hadley Centre’s scenarios, people alive later this century will confront natural conditions that are quite outside human experience – for the simple reason that nothing like them has existed since many millions of years before human beings evolved. The tranquilising reassurances of the new denialism melt away before visions of the strange, spiny vegetation that spread across the Earth’s now-fertile middle latitudes during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, 55 million years ago. That was the last time global temperatures stood at more than about five degrees above recent levels.
At temperatures still conceivable in the business-as-usual scenario, the weirding becomes almost unimaginably bizarre. Scientists describe the oily, purplish seas, thick with sulphur-loving anaerobic bacteria, believed to have characterised the end-Permian extinction 251 million years ago. As many 90 per cent of marine and land species died out.
The real political play makers
With visions like this in the sober scientific record, there is no need for environmentalists to resort to shrillness. But at the same time, the environment movement should not deny that people have a right to be angry at those who are setting the catastrophes in motion.
Further, the movement needs to tell the truth not just about the physical science, but about the social and political science as it pertains to climate issues. Who are the denialists, and what are the material interests behind their actions? Who, in point of fact, are the real political play makers? A pointer here is provided by the media organs that have promoted the various “scandals” and myths most aggressively and unscrupulously.
In their respective countries, the Australian, the London Times and the US Wall Street Journal all have reputations as the highly politicised campaign media of large-scale corporate interests. Not only do these organisations report news in partisan fashion, but they are notorious for setting out to make it in the first place, through focused political interventions. Where most corporations concentrate on disciplining their own workforces and maximising their own profits, the above-mentioned media outlets, all part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, bring consistent strategising and a fierce class consciousness to the task of defending capitalist interests on the broadest scale.
Why, though, should the hard-right political campaigning of the Murdoch media include slandering climate scientists and trying to derail the work of the environment movement? Presumably, the editors of the Australian are not bent on systemic suicide. But there is very good reason to conclude that a comprehensive ecological collapse, by making it difficult or impossible for human beings to gather enough food to sustain large settled populations, would doom modern civilisation and capitalism along with it.
The paradox is explained to a degree if we reflect that as a system, capitalism is ill suited to dealing with quandaries whose effects, however dire, make themselves felt only slowly and incrementally. In order to survive, even the largest capitalist corporations are forced by competition to concentrate their gaze on the current business cycle. Rarely can they plan more than a decade ahead. For the people who run corporations, climate impacts that will take effect toward mid-century seem very remote. Whatever the scope of these dangers, the inducement is strong to assign them a low priority.
Against the particularist and short-term compulsions innate in their system, capitalists have of course the instrument of the state, designed to look after their collective and longer-term interests. But when earnings are tight, the pressure for small, cheap government, blind to matters much beyond the next budget, is often overwhelming.
What this implies is a negligent and penny-pinching response to climate dangers, and the general capitalist response to global warming has taken this form. But the most militant and ideological sections of the class have reacted differently. Here, the arguments and demands of the climate movement are viewed as slurs on the legitimacy of capitalism. The response has been furious, with bullying, innuendo and falsehoods heaped on targets from individual climate scientists to the IPCC.
The truth, of course, is that to discuss climate change honestly is indeed to delegitimise the prevailing system of property relations. And for the great majority of human beings, who have no stake in oil sands or coal loaders, that is precisely what needs to be undertaken.
[Renfrey Clarke is an Australian climate activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Adelaide.]