1 Feb 2010
A Review of ‘Climate Cover-up’ by James Hoggan
This very timely book is essential reading for those bewildered by the recent backlash against climate science. It takes things back to basics, and rather than being an exploration of the climate science itself, it seeks to equip the reader with the tools to be able to distinguish between the sources of climate-related information. If you want to board an aeroplane, but were told by a large group of aeronautical engineers that the plane was 90% certain to crash upon take-off, would you listen to them, or to a small group, comprising a PR consultant, a botanist and a plumber, who presented as evidence an article from Readers Digest magazine? The debate as to whether climate change is happening or not, and the need felt by media organisations to always present ‘both sides’, was over several years ago, yet since just before Copenhagen, contrarianism is back, and is back bigtime. So who are these people? Are they right? And how can we tell the difference?
Recently, Peter Taylor, author of “Chill:A Reassessment of Global Warming Theory: Does Climate Change Mean the World is Cooling, and If So What Should We Do About It?”, gave a talk in Totnes to a packed hall. His talk rubbished the idea of global warming, stating that the world is actually cooling, its largely due to sunspot activity anyway, and the world elites know it is all a scam. Many who attended left convinced by his argument and the slew of impressive looking graphs thrown at them. But who is Peter Taylor, and how can we, as punters, distinguish between science and pseudo-science on this vital issue? Climate change is a complex science, hard for many of us to really understand. Hoggan offers 3 questions to always bear in mind in such circumstances;
- Does this ‘expert’ have relevant credentials? For example, have they trained in an area of science that is at the very least connected to climatology or atmospheric physics?
- If an ‘expert’ is talking about science, are they still practicing science? Are they still conducting research and publishing in legitimate peer-reviewed journals? Or are all of their ‘scientific’ pronouncements appearing on newspaper opinion pages, edited by people who think its just great to provoke debate?
- Is this ‘expert’ taking money from vested interests or is he or she associated with idealogical think tanks – the people who rely for their employment on promoting the agenda of their major funders?
This is a very useful checklist. In the case of Taylor, closer investigation reveals that he doesn’t have the relevant credentials and has no training in areas related to climate concerns. The biography in his book reads;
“In 1984 Peter Taylor worked as an internationally respected biologist specialising in marine radioactive pollution. As an independent scientist he was appointed to the British government’s Holliday Commission and acted as researched adviser to the Department of the Environment’s radioactive waste programme. At the same time he actively represented Greenpeace at International Conventions for the protection of the oceans. He has published widely in science journals, and was regularly interviewed by press and TV. Behind the scenes, as a yogic initiator, he acted as teacher and guide to many people awakening to a contemporary spiritual path”.
So, nothing that relates to climatology, glaciology, any of the other disciplines that underpin climate science (as Hoggan notes, this is a common pattern among contrarians). Closer investigation reveals his autobiography, ‘Shiva’s Rainbow’. In it, he refers to how he obtained an Open Scholarship at Oxford to study biology, geology, chemistry and physics, “I had lied my way into the system” he writes. As for his scientific credentials, Taylor writes;
“In truth, in the scientific realms in which I worked, and gained by now, some standing, I was an imposter. I am not a scientist. Apart from my brief survey of tree-hole communities when I successfully correlated insect larvae diversity with circumference and aspect of the hole to the sun, which, in any case, had been done many times before, I have never ‘done’ science. In my work I have relied certainly upon an understanding of scientific theory and a memory for facts and relationships, and upon an instinct for the hidden and not yet known, but fundamentally I have been a linguist and an actor. My scientific degrees were linguistic exercises in critical review. My performances on television, in public inquiries, on tribunals and commissions, those of an extremely well-briefed lawyer, the ultimate actor. Which is not to say there is no dedication to truth.”
The book reads more like a psychedelic acid New Age paranoia novel, a la Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminati trilogy, rather than the biography of a scientist.
In terms of whether he has published any peer-reviewed papers on climate change, there are none, his work more likely to appear in New Age publications like Caduceus magazine than Nature or Science (according to the references at the back of ‘Chill’, he did have one thing published in Nature, called “Nuclear Energy: how the odds are stacked against the opponents”, a two pager which was most likely a letter, and nothing to do with climate change). He did publish one good book on landscape and wildlife, published by respected publishers Earthscan, and a few papers, mostly on marine pollution and nuclear power, but that’s it, nothing even vaguely climate related, and ‘Chill’ was published by Clairview, which is a publisher that emerged from the Rudolf Steiner movement, and whose back catalogue is definitely more toward the ‘New Age’ end of the spectrum.
I want to be completely clear that there’s no evidence at all that Taylor takes funding from oil companies, and I’m not implying that he does. However Taylor has clear intellectual vested interests, in that he is deeply rooted in the 2012/New Age/conspiracy community, so that after 90 minutes discussing the ‘science’ of climate change, he then switches mode and talks about shamanism, 2012 and consciousness change, and his Totnes talk littered with arguing that ‘they’ don’t want you to hear the ‘truth’ that he is presenting. Based on Hoggan’s questions, on this vital question, Taylor lacks any of the key credentials that we should look for when evaluating information on this vital issue. He is, unfortunately, not alone.
There is a growing band of contrarian voices, many of whom are very media savvy, and who are increasingly getting an airing. But Hoggan’s book starts by taking a closer look at the phenomenon of ‘Manufactured Doubt’. It started with the tobacco industry, and the tactics it used to prevent legislation to ban smoking. For many years after the science that proved the link between smoking and cancer, tobacco industry-funded PR companies sowed doubt about the science, questioning its rigour and lobbying Governments. It worked, for many years. The same thing was seen with ozone depletion, and now with climate change.
A range of high profile contrarians appear regularly now in the media, sowing doubt about the science, picking up on small errors like the recent IPCC glacier mistake, or the emails leaked from University of East Anglia, and arguing that that means that the entire science of climate change is wrong. The reality, according to Hoggan, is very different. Although the media is full of stories questioning climate science, the body of scientific knowledge arguing that human activity is affecting climate is vast. In 2005, Naomi Oreskes published a paper in Science which searches the database of peer reviewed science on climate change published between 1993 and 2003. She found 928 articles, none of which challenged the consensus that human activity was changing the climate. At the same time, another study by Jules and Max Boykoff looked at the coverage in the four main US papers at that time, finding that 53% of stories also quoted a contrarian ‘spokesperson’ in order to maintain ‘balance’. In other words the media were presenting ‘the other side’, in spite of the unanimous scientific opinion that there was no legitimate ‘other side’.
The book offers a blistering exposee of shadowy think tanks, pretend grassroots organisations, lobbyists and charismatic speakers, who dedicate their time to manufacturing doubt about climate change. The funding links between these individuals and groups and the fossil fuel or other energy intensive corporations who fund them are laid out clearly. This includes the Western Fuels Association, whose film ‘The Greening of Planet Earth’, which argued that increases in CO2 are actually good for the earth (“Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life”) has to be seen to be believed, and also Dr. Timothy Ball.
Hoggan describes Ball thus, “there are few ‘skeptical scientists’ with as little actual experience and as much ambition as the Canadian geography professor Dr. Timothy Ball. Never a climate scientist per se, Dr Ball quit his position as an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg in 1995, apparently ending an academic career that featured a lifetime output of just four peer-reviewed journal articles, none of which addressed atmospheric science”. Yet after 10 years, Ball was a highly visible contrarian, even testifying before a committee of the Canadian parliament, coming out with gems like “Environment Canada [the Canadian national weather service] can’t even predict the weather! How can you tell me that they have any idea what it’s going to be like 100 years from now if they can’t tell me what the weather is going to be like in four months, or even next week?” (an absurd argument I still read every week in the letters column of our local paper).
‘Climate Cover-up’ explores the range of contrarian spokespeople and where they come from ideologically. They almost all rarely have the background or qualifications to speak authoritatively on the subject, but some come from a deeply libertarian political perspective, usually from the political Right, such as ‘Lord’ Monckton, who told the Glen Beck Program on Fox News that he was seeking to “fight back against this tide of unscientific freedom-destroying nonsense”, some just do it because the funding is very attractive, some, and such as Taylor, take an almost Messianic David Icke-style ‘everything you know is wrong and the Truth will set you free’ type approach. They all believe the entire science is questionable to the extent that we should scrap it and start again. On top of this one can also add George Monbiot’s observations that they are mostly men of above a certain age who use climate denial as a tool for avoiding their own mortality (very interesting, worth a read).
The reality though is very different. Of course there is doubt about climate science, that’s now science works… science is built on, and thrives on doubt. As Hoggan puts it, in probably the most important paragraph in the book;
“Who says climate science is a scientific certainty? No one really. Certainties are rare in science. Even the reappearance of the sun over the horizon tomorrow morning can be reduced to a question of probability. On the question of climate change, scientists say they are more than 90% sure that it’s happening and that humans are responsible. Scientists embrace that kind of skepticism. It is through doubting the certainties of the world (the flatness of the Earth, the usefulness of bloodletting) that scientists advance human knowledge. But no serious scientist will stand up and denounce a widely held scientific theory without making a verifiable argument to the contrary. Scientists – real scientists – bind themselves to a strict discipline, setting out their theories and experiments carefully, subjecting them to review by other credible scholars who are knowledgeable in their field, and publishing them in reputable journals, such as Science and Nature. The people who approach the science of climate change with that kind of integrity have agreed on its underlying components for years”.
Of course, there is doubt about the science. A recent article in Nature , ‘The Real Holes in Climate Science, set out the areas where the science is weaker, where more studies are needed, but they are very different to where the contrarians argue they are. The fact that one detail about the Himalayan glaciers made it into the last IPCC report unchecked, part of a hugely complex document, is not great, but to err is, after all human, and the reality, according to most of the science published since the latest IPCC report, is that it is too conservative, rather than too radical, and there are calls for the IPCC to go back to the data not because it is wrong, but precisely because it doesn’t take more more alarming recent developments into account. Those like Taylor who argue that there is a proven and established link between global warming and sunspot activity are left with little ground to stand on, due to the fact that 2009 was, globally, the hottest year on record, but with the lowest sunspot activity for many years. Alongside this, the major ice sheets continue to disintegrate, and we continue the slide towards runaway climate change.
This is such a vital issue. I am not a climate scientist, and like many of us, I did not leave school with the scientific understanding to be able to distinguish between an article in Caduceus by Peter Taylor and a peer-reviewed article in Science. The reason so many people were impressed with Taylor’s talk was because, on some level, his message was what they wanted to hear (which was presumably why they went in the first place). The same is true across society, which is why so few people actually check the credentials of those putting themselves forward as ‘experts’. Hoggan though is insistent that we need to learn to be more discerning. “This is not a time for easy answers. This is a time for right answers, which you will find only if you insist on the best sources, the respected journals and national science academies that have no agenda other than advancing the scope of human knowledge”.
‘Climate Cover-up’ was published, sadly, before the fufore that surrounded the release of the hacked emails from UEA, and would have benefitted greatly from their analysis, although that can be found over at the author’s blog. The last section of the book, about the tar sands, and about Canadian politics, falls a bit flat for me in comparison to the rest of the book, but that is just a small criticism. In a world where climate change is accused of being a conspiracy, ‘Climate Cover-up’ reveals the true nature of the real conspiracy, a conspiracy to denegrate science, to elevate belief to the same standing as peer-reviewed science, to enable vast amounts of fossil fuel industry money to attack a well-proven scientific case, to manufacture doubt where little exists. In exposing the modus operandii and the dubious credentials of those fronting it, ‘Climate Cover-up’ does us a great service, and in offering us a finely tuned bullshit detector, a set of critical thinking tools, it many turn out to be one of the most important books you have ever read. Finally, here is a wonderful cartoon someone sent me recently which rather sums all of this up.
I am indebted to Alistair McIntosh’s review of ‘Shiva’s Rainbow’ for some of the quotes above.