2 Dec 2009
Six Things We Know For Sure in the Wake of ‘Climate Gate’
A few people have been in touch to ask whether, in the light of the recent illegal hacking into UEA’s emails, and the proposition by climate deniers that some of the emails that have emerged prove climate change is a scam, Transition Network now intends to renounce the absurd notion of human-induced climate change. Of course not. It has been a fascinating few days though, and we are probably the last people to actually post any thoughts on it, but on reflection my sense is that there are perhaps 6 things we can say that we know for sure (or, as climate scientists would say, with a very high degree of probability) .
1. Climate change is a very real and present danger
Is there anything in these emails that leads one to assume that climate change is not happening? No. Writing in the Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard tried to carve in stone what we know for sure about climate change (in spite of acknowledging that there are never certainties in science, rather “all science can ever be is the best guess of the best minds”). We know that the climate is warming, and that this is caused by emissions of greenhouse gases, and that if this continues, “nasty things probably start happening within the next century, possibly within the next decade”, although of course there are many extreme events already happening attributed by many to climate change.
Jeff Masters at wunderground.com puts it thus, “even if every bit of mud slung at these scientists were true – the body of scientific work supporting the theory of human-caused climate change – which spans hundreds of thousands of scientific papers written by tens of thousands of scientists in dozens of different scientific disciplines – is too vast to be budged by the flaws in the works of the three of four scientists being subject to the fiercest attacks”. Indeed.
We are talking about a scientific case that has been built up over 20 years or so of peer-reviewed science. As Greenfyre puts it, “Which studies were compromised, how? Be specific. Cite papers and data sets. What is the evidence? Where is it? What work is affected? How? Show me the evidence that says so”. It is much easier just to fling muck around than to be specific. Nothing has emerged this week that puts the actual science behind climate change in question at all.
Every year the human race throws 27 billion tons of carbon dioxide (7.3 tons of pure carbon) into the atmosphere. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have thrown half a trillion tons of pure carbon into the atmosphere. Are we to assume that that will have absolutely no effect on the planet’s complex and delicately balanced climate and ecosystems? Climate science was proved years ago. Most people in any position of responsibility have long since moved on to thinking about what we are actually going to do about it. As Rupert Read put it, “when the dust settles, I predict that the climate deniers will be left holding onto hardly anything here”.
2. Scientists are Human Beings
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but it’s true. There were things that appear to have been done in some of the emails that is not accepted practice, and academic protocols were not always observed, but it might also be instructive to be able to read the emails that they were being bombarded with. I thought that UEA’s defense of its position and its staff was mostly fair enough. I get emails from conspiracy theorists, and they can be very unpleasant and aggressive. I usually ignore them, and can completely understand anyone else doing the same (although it is true that I am not funded by the taxpayer).
Brian Davey recently picked up on UEA’s assertion that they don’t need to go on a counter-offensive to defend their science because “the science speaks for itself”. As Brian puts it, “the science can only “speak for itself” fully to other scientists operating in the same peer group. To the overwhelming majority of the population the science doesn’t speak to them at all – they can’t make head nor tail of it”.
Herein lies the problem. Often those who best understand climate science are the worst at communicating it. They are not campaigners, they are often not articulate explainers of the undoubtedly complex science of climate change. They are also often people who, puzzlingly, often manage to maintain a complete professional distance between what they know and what they feel. As George Marshall puts it over at ClimateDenial;
Scientists often seek public anonymity. The only person portrayed the front page of the IPCC’s website is the long dead Alfred Nobel on the side of a gold medal. Deniers by comparison realise that trust (and distrust) is all about personalities. They promote themselves (and their personal backstories) constantly. They are not a pleasant bunch, but they get lots of practice in creating a good impression and some (such as Lomborg and Stott) can be charming in person.
I once attended a lecture at Plymouth University by a marine scientist, working on sea level rise for the IPCC, very well respected. He talked very articulately for 40 minutes about climate change and sea level rise, and then, during the Q&A, I asked him whether knowing what he did about climate change mean he lived his life differently in any way. There was tutting from other academics at the petulance of my question. He replied that no, it didn’t. I struggle to understand that.
Scientists aren’t perfect, and they need to get better at getting out there and explaining climate change in a way most people can understand, but in having spotted the potential extinction of our species heading our way and given us at least the option of avoiding it, we owe them a profound debt of gratitude. There are also some great examples of climate scientists who understand the science, are great communicators and also live the changes in their personal lives too – James Hansen with his personal commitent to civil disobedience about coal, and Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre, who has no car, no fridge or freezer.
3. That there are major dirty tricks campaigns at work.
Jeff Masters’ article about the Manufactured Doubt campaigns is an essential read, if you want to get a sense of the context within which this release of emails takes place. It is, of course, no coincidence that this happened a couple of weeks before the Copenhagen climate negotiations. There has been a huge upsurge in co-ordinated climate contrarians (Masters argues that ‘contrarian’ is a much more appropriate term than ‘skeptic’, because “all good scientists should be skeptics“, and there is a fine tradition of skepticism; rather ‘contrarians’ is his preferred term). He draws the parallels between the well funded campaigns of ropy science and PR that held off the smoking ban for many years, and did the same with the withdrawl of CFCs to stop ozone depletion.
He notes that in the US, there are 5 lobbyists in Congress representing the fossil fuel lobby trying to argue against climate legislation, for every one environmental lobbyist. For just the second quarter of 2009, the fossil fuel lobby spent $36.8 million and the environmental lobbyists spent $2.6 million. The scale and the co-ordination of the final push in advance of Copenhagen to try, again, to weave doubt into what is a watertight scientific case, is, as Masters observes, highly reminiscent of the tobacco industry in the mid 1950s, and we can only hope that they are received with the distain they deserve, although recent polls showing that less than half of the UK population believe in climate change are a cause for alarm.
4. That there is no vast conspiracy to uncover
I have little time for conspiracy theorists. I find it amusing that some of the very same people who argue that peak oil is a scam, a con cooked up by the New World Order (whoever they are) in order to manipulate oil prices and become vastly wealthy, are unable to discern the similar hand of the oil industry behind the push on climate scepticism (in spite of clear evidence of Exxon, for example, funding climate contrarian organisations). The idea that climate science was cobbled together by corporate powers with the collusion of scientists who actually all know it is really nonsense is absurd. George Monbiot has had fun telling the story that such a scam would necessitate, but for me, other than the many other reasons why such an argument simply makes no sense, it is historically inaccurate and revisionist.
One only has to read Jeremy Leggett’s book ‘Carbon War‘ to get a sense of how, during the Kyoto negotiations, the global corporate powers who supposedly have invented climate change, ruthlessly went out of their way to water down any proposed legislation. Scientists were intimidated, documents drafted and redrafted to have uncertainty put into them, and targets reduced. To reach the point where the concept that human activity is responsible for climate change has taken a huge effort over 20 years by a wide range of activists, scientists and campaigners, most of whom history will not recall. Corporate interests have been dragged kicking and screaming into taking action on climate change, rather than (with a handful of notable exceptions) leading from the front, and Copenhagen will likely fare no different.
5. Even if there was, conspiracy theorists would be the last people to uncover it
Conspiracy theorists email me stuff about dubious organisations Transition Network supposedly works with, ask what I think about 2012, free energy devices and some of the various people who peddle this stuff around the country. There are references online to ‘Rob Hopkins and his paymasters’, this kind of thing. However, my experience of how these people work, is that their ‘research’ is generally anything but. Actual research involves creating a hypothesis which you then test, with as little attachment to one outcome as to another.
Starting out with the idea that everything the world is connected, linked by some nefarious network, and then looking around for bits of ‘evidence’ that you can then cobble together to prove your point is not research, and the same goes for much of the contrarian ‘research’ on climate change. As Sir Terry Frost put it, “if you know before you look, you cannot see for knowing”. Much of the case for conspiracy is built on foundations of what starts as a rumour, is then copied onto blogs, then quoted elsewhere, and before long is a ‘fact’. As I say, even if climate change were the result of a vast sprawling conspiracy, conspiracy theorists would, given the paucity of their research methods, be the last people to figure it out.
As John Michael Greer puts it in ‘The Long Descent’, conspiracy theories offer us three comforting messages, that its not our fault, because everything bad that happens has been engineered by dubious powers, that the world does what it’s told, i.e. there is no point engaging in the political process at all, and that you don’t have to change your life. It is easy, in a world that demands increasingly tough choices from us, to see why grasping at this kind of thinking is attractive to so many.
It is also worth bearing in mind the politics behind much of this stuff. Who is the most vocal climate skeptic out there, arguing, as these people do, that it is all a scam trumped up by political elites? Nick Griffin. Much of it reads like the psychedelic wing of the UK Independence Party, a bizzare mix of wild out there pseudoscience and reactionary Daily Mail politics. Best avoided.
6. That Climate Change is Not the Only Reason to Break Our Love Affair With Oil
Even if climate change were not a pressing reason to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels (which it is), and even if peak oil were not an issue and there was 3000 years worth of cheap oil left in the ground (which there isn’t), there is a list of other reasons why we should be loving and then leaving the black stuff as soon as possible. I could go on and on here, but for a start how about social justice, all the health problems caused by inhaling particulates, the clearing of people from their land when oil is found, Shell’s behaviour in Nigeria, the cocktail of harmful chemicals we have extracted from oil, the ability it gives us to alter landscapes and habitats, the M25, the build up of pthalates in body tissue… etc, etc, etc. Climate change isn’t the only way in which the society and the industrial model oil had enabled us to create are killing us, there are many many reasons to leave our oil dependency behind as urgently as possible, what Sharon Astyk calls “The Theory of Anyway”.
So there you have it. In conclusion, I think that the only one thing scarier than entering the 21st century on the verge of triggering runaway climate change (if we haven’t already) is entering it with the idea that belief is the same as science. I meet conspiracy theorists who argue that belief in climate change and climate contrarianism are the same, both just belief. Actually, one is a scientific case built up over 20 years of rigorously peer-reviewed science, the other is a belief system. Presumably creationism and evolution are also just equally valid belief systems too?
This last week has been challenging for many, but how many people actually expected that we would get this close to Copenhagen without something like this happening? It is par for the course, the stakes are very high. But as for whether Transition Network will continue and strengthen its dedication to inspiring communities in responding with creativity, adaptability and imagination to climate change, of course it will. To do anything else at this point in history would be to give up on science, on reason, and on the rights of future generations to be able to make the sme choices as we are able to today.
P.S. Having witnessed the abusive nature of the debates that often arise in forums and comments threads on this topic, I will ask here for civility and respectfulness in any comments please, and also I will only moderate comments where people use their actual names, not ‘WolfPig18’ or ‘sausageears’ or whatever….