Democratic Revolution

George Monbiot Blog - Fri, 09/18/2020 - 05:55

Full-scale participatory democracy would change everything. It has the same revolutionary potential as the universal franchise and women’s suffrage.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th September 2020

It’s good entertainment, but that’s all it is. Seeing Boris Johnson ritually dismembered in Parliament might make us feel better, but nothing changes. He still has an 80-seat majority, though only 29% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives. We are reduced, for five long years, to spectators.

Our system allows the victorious government a mandate to do what it likes between elections, without further reference to the people. As we have seen, this can include breaking international law, suspending Parliament, curtailing the judiciary, politicising the civil service, attacking the Electoral Commission, and invoking royal prerogative powers to make policy without anyone’s consent. This is not democracy, but a parody of democracy.

By contrast to our five-yearly vote, capital can respond to government policy every second, withdrawing its consent with catastrophic consequences if it doesn’t like its drift. There’s a massive imbalance of power here. The voting power of capital, with modern trading technologies, has advanced by leaps and bounds. Electoral power is trapped in the age of the quill pen.

The problem, in other words, is not just Boris Johnson. The problem is the UK’s political system, which presents an open invitation for autocratic behaviour. In the past, people warned that a ruthless operator could make hay with this system. Well, that moment has come.

Labour has long been part of the problem, refusing to contemplate even a change to our preposterous first-past-the-post elections, let alone any wider surrender of power. And it is tragic to watch it now, still playing by the old rules. These state that a party should not show its hand until a few months before the election. Well, that’s four years away, and the power grab is happening now. We urgently need a stirring alternative vision, a call to democratic arms. Instead, we get forensic dissections of particular government policies: admirably done, but unmatched to the moment.

At moments like this, old parties flounder. New ideas arise outside the system, and effective opposition takes place on the street. Of course, this is difficult now, as there are good public health reasons not to gather in large numbers, and we can expect the government to exploit them. But civil disobedience is ever-inventive, constantly developing new tactics in response to attempts to shut it down.

We saw some of these in Extinction Rebellion’s latest week of protests, and we saw something else too: its emergence as a broad oppositional movement, taking on the billionaire press, the lobbyists, the banks and other bastions of power, that are not usually associated with the extinction and climate crises, but are fundamental to them. From the beginning, XR has been both an environmental movement and a democracy movement: participatory politics, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, has been one of its key demands.

Like the suffragettes and the civil rights movement, it was excoriated for threatening “our way of life”. Almost all democratic advances, everywhere, have been secured by people who were branded “anarchists” and “criminals”.

The democratic and environmental crises have the same roots: our exclusion, for several years at a time, from meaningful politics. In some places, particularly Ireland, Iceland, France, Taiwan, British Columbia, Ontario and several Spanish and Brazilian cities, a host of fascinating experiments with new democratic forms has been taking place: constitutional conventions, citizens’ assemblies, community development, digital deliberation, participatory budgeting. They are designed to give people a voice between elections, tempering representative democracy, allowing them to refine their choices.

The UK pays lip service to these innovations. Last week the citizens’ assembly on climate, convened by parliament, published its findings. But there are no obvious means by which they can be adopted by the government. In Scotland, all local authorities allow local people to set part of their budgets, though so far it’s very small: just 1% of the money allocated by central government.

Unless the results of participatory democracy can be translated into policy, and unless it operates at a meaningful scale, it generates cynicism and disillusion. But as the processes in Ireland, Madrid and some Brazilian cities have shown, when people are allowed to make big and frequent decisions, the results can be transformative. Alienated, polarised populations come together to identify and solve their common problems. Democracy becomes a lived reality.

Nowhere has participatory politics yet been allowed to fulfil its promise. There is no principled or technical reason why the majority of a municipal or national budget should not be set through public deliberation, following the techniques pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. There is no principled or technical reason why the monthly voting process for improving life in Reykjavík could not be applied at the national level, everywhere. The call for full-scale participatory democracy is as revolutionary as the call for the universal franchise was in the 19th Century. What is needed is a vehicle similar in scale to the Chartist and suffragette movements.

There are precedents for environmental protests mutating into democratic revolutions: this is what helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our climate and extinction crises expose the failures of all quasi-democratic systems, and the blatant capture of ours by the power of money turns the UK into a global crucible.

In XR’s outrageous, reviled protests we see the beginnings of what could become a 21st Century democratic revolution. Through his incompetence, callousness and greed for power, Boris Johnson has done us two favours: exposing the shallowness of our theatrical democracy, and creating a potential coalition ranging from hospital porters to Supreme Court judges. Now we must decide how to mobilise it.

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New studies confirm weakening of the Gulf Stream circulation (AMOC)

Real Climate - Thu, 09/17/2020 - 15:55

Many of the earlier predictions of climate research have now become reality. The world is getting warmer, sea levels are rising faster and faster, and more frequent heat waves, extreme rainfall, devastating wildfires and more severe tropical storms are affecting many millions of people. Now there is growing evidence that another climate forecast is already coming true: the Gulf Stream system in the Atlantic is apparently weakening, with consequences for Europe too.

The gigantic overturning circulation of the Atlantic water (dubbed AMOC) moves almost 20 million cubic meters of water per second – almost a hundred times the Amazon flow. Warm surface water flows to the north and returns to the south as a cold deep current. This means an enormous heat transport – more than a million gigawatts, almost one hundred times the energy consumption of mankind. This heat is released into the air in the northern Atlantic and has a lasting effect on our climate.

But since the 1980s, climate researchers have been warning of a weakening or even a cessation of this flow as a result of global warming. In 1987, the famous US oceanographer Wally Broecker titled an article in the scientific journal Nature “Unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse”. Even Hollywood took up the subject in 2004 in the film “The Day After Tomorrow” by the German director Roland Emmerich. However, there were no measurement data that could prove an ongoing slowdown.

Only since 2004 has there been continuous monitoring at 26°N in the Atlantic (RAPID project). Although the data show a weakening of the current system, the measurement series is still too short to distinguish a possible climate trend from decadal variability. For the longer-term development of the Gulf Stream system, we must therefore rely on indirect evidence.

A long-term AMOC weakening should lead to a cooling in the northern Atlantic. Such a regional cooling in the middle of global warming has been predicted by climate models for a long time. And indeed, the evaluation of data on sea surface temperatures shows that the northern Atlantic is the only region of the world that has escaped global warming and has even cooled down since the 19th century (see graph). In addition, one can see a particularly strong warming off the North American coast, which according to model simulations is part of the characteristic “fingerprint” of a weakening of the Gulf Stream circulation.

Diagram of the Gulf Stream system with the warm surface current and the cold deep current. The actual Gulf Stream off the US coast is a part of this more comprehensive circulation system. The color shading shows the measured temperature trend since the late 19th century. This diagram is based on Caesar et al., Nature 2018 and first appeared in the Washington Post.

This fingerprint is regarded as important evidence, and not least because of this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated for the first time a year ago in the Summary for Policy Makers of its Special Report on the Oceans:

 “Observations, both in situ (2004–2017) and based on sea surface temperature reconstructions, indicate that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) has weakened relative to 1850–1900.”

New studies support long-term weakening

Two new studies now provide further independent evidence of this weakening. In August a paper by Christopher Piecuch of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on the Florida Current – the part of the Gulf Stream system along the Florida coast – was published. Although continuous measurements of the current have only been available since 1982, Piecuch was able to reconstruct the strength of the Florida Current over the last 110 years from measurements of the sea level difference between the two sides of the current. To do so, he used 46 tide gauge stations in Florida and the Caribbean as well as a simple physical principle: the Coriolis force deflects currents in the northern hemisphere to the right, so that the water on the right side of a current stands higher than on the left. The stronger the current, the greater the difference in sea level. Comparison with measurements since 1982 shows that the method works reliably.

The result: the Florida current has weakened significantly since 1909 and in the last twenty years has probably been as weak as never before. Piecuch’s calculations also show that the resulting reduction of heat transport is sufficient to explain the ‘cold blob’ in the northern Atlantic.

This Monday, in Nature Climate Change a further study appeared, of researchers of Peking University and Ohio State University (Chenyu Zhu and Zhengyu Liu). For the first time, their paper provides evidence for an AMOC slowdown based on data from outside the North Atlantic. Model simulations show that a weakening of the AMOC leads to an accumulation of salt in the subtropical South Atlantic. This is due to the fact that strong evaporation in this region constantly increases the salinity, while the upper branch of the ocean circulation drains the salty water northwards, continually bringing in less salty water from the south. When this current weakens, the water in this region becomes saltier. This is exactly what the measured data show, in accordance with computer simulations. The authors speak of a “salinity fingerprint” of the weakening Atlantic circulation.

Video animation of ocean currents in the CM2.6 climate model of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab in Princeton:

In addition to these oceanographic measurements, a number of studies with sediment data indicate that the Gulf Stream circulation is now weaker than it has been for at least a millennium.

These current changes also affect Europe, because the ‘cold blob’ out in the Atlantic also influences the weather. It sounds paradoxical when you think of the shock frost scenario of the Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow: but British researchers found that in summer the jet stream in the atmosphere likes to take a route around the south side of the cold blob – this then brings warm winds from the southwest into Europe, leading to heat waves there, as in the summer of 2015. Another study found a decrease in summer precipitation in northern Europe and stronger winter storms. What exactly the further consequences will be is the subject of current research.

However, the latest generation (CMIP6) of climate models shows one thing: if we continue to heat up our planet, the AMOC will weaken further – by 34 to 45% by 2100. This could bring us dangerously close to the tipping point at which the flow becomes unstable.

This article appeared originally in German in Der Spiegel: Das Golfstromsystem macht schlapp

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Rotten to the Core

George Monbiot Blog - Mon, 09/14/2020 - 09:52

The UK’s economic and political life revolves around corruption.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th September 2020

Fear, shame, embarrassment: these brakes no longer apply. The government has discovered that it can bluster through any scandal. No minister need resign. No one need apologise. No one need explain.

As public outrage grows over the billions of pounds of coronavirus contracts issued by the government without competition, it seems determined only to award more of them. Never mind that the consulting company Deloitte, whose personnel circulate in and out of government, has been strongly criticised for the disastrous system it devised to supply protective equipment to the NHS. It has now been granted a massive new contract to test the population for Covid-19.

Never mind that untendered contracts with firms that had no previous experience in supplying medical equipment have left us with vast piles of substandard PPE that can’t be used. Never mind that, Byline Times has reported, one of these contracts has cost taxpayers £800 for every medical gown it has delivered. Never mind that at least two multi-million pound contracts have been issued to dormant companies. Awarding contracts to unusual companies, without advertising, transparency or competition now appears to have been adopted as the norm. Several of the firms that have benefited from this largesse are closely linked to senior figures in the government.

Every week, Boris Johnson looks more like George I, under whose government vast fortunes were made by political favourites, through monopoly contracts for military procurement. Any pretence of fiscal rectitude or democratic accountability has been abandoned. With four more years and the support of the billionaire press, who cares?

The way the government handles public money looks to me like an open invitation to corruption. While it is hard to demonstrate that any individual deal is corrupt, the framework under which this money is dispensed invites the perception.

When you connect the words corruption and the United Kingdom, people tend to respond with shock and anger. Corruption, we believe, is something that happens abroad. Indeed, if you check the rankings published by Transparency International, the UK looks like one of the world’s cleanest countries. But this is an artefact of the narrow criteria they use.

As Jason Hickel points out in his book The Divide, theft by officials in poorer nations amounts to between $20 and $40 billion a year. It’s a lot of money, and it harms well-being and democracy in those countries. But this figure is dwarfed by the illicit flows of money from poor and middling nations that are organised by multinational companies and banks. The US research group Global Financial Integrity estimates that $1.1 trillion a year flows illegally out of poorer nations, stolen from them through tax evasion and the transfer of money within corporations. This practice costs sub-Saharan Africa around 6% of its GDP.

The looters rely on secrecy regimes to process and hide their stolen money. The corporate tax haven index published by the Tax Justice Network shows that the three countries that have done most to facilitate this theft are the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. All of them are British territories. Jersey, a British dependency, comes seventh on the list. These places are effectively satellites of the City of London. But because they are overseas, the City can benefit from ”nefarious activities … while allowing the British government to maintain distance when scandals arise.” The City of London’s astonishing exemption from the UK’s freedom of information laws creates an extra ring of secrecy.

The UK also appears to be the money-laundering capital of the world. In a devastating article for the Guardian, Oliver Bullough revealed how easy it has become to hide your stolen loot and fraudulent schemes here, using a giant loophole in company law: no one checks the ownership details you enter when creating your company. You can, literally, call yourself Mickey Mouse, with a registered address on Mars, and get away with it. Bullough discovered owners on the Companies House site called “Xxx Stalin” and “Mr Mmmmmm Xxxxxxxxxxx”, whose address was given as “Mmmmmmm, Mmmmmm, Mmm, MMM”. One investigation found that 4000 company owners, according to their submitted details, were under the age of two.

By giving false identities, company owners in the UK can engage in the industrial processing of dirty money, with no fear of getting caught. Even when the UK’s company registration system was revealed as instrumental to the world’s biggest known money-laundering scheme, the Danske Bank scandal, the government turned a blind eye.

A new and terrifying book by the Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis, Kleptopia, follows a global current of dirty money, and the murders and kidnappings required to sustain it. Again and again, he found, this money, though it might originate in Russia, Africa or the Middle East, travels through London. The murders and kidnappings don’t happen here, of course: our bankers have clean cuffs and manicured nails. The National Crime Agency estimates that money laundering costs the UK £100bn a year. But it makes the rich much more. With the money come people fleeing the consequences of their crimes, welcomed into this country through the government’s “golden visa” scheme: a red carpet laid out for the very rich.

None of this features in the official definitions of corruption. Corruption is what little people do. But kleptocrats in other countries are merely clients of the bigger thieves in London. Processing everyone else’s corruption is the basis of much of the wealth of this country. When you start to understand this, the contention by the author of Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano, that the UK is the most corrupt nation on Earth, begins to make sense.

These activities are a perpetuation of colonial looting: a means by which vast riches are siphoned out of poorer countries and into the hands of the super-rich. The UK’s great and unequal wealth was built on colonial robbery: the land and labour stolen in Ireland, America and Africa, the humans stolen by slavery, the $45 trillion bled from India.

Just as we distanced ourselves from British slave plantations in the Caribbean, somehow believing that they had nothing to do with us, now we distance ourselves from British organised crime, much of which also happens in the Caribbean. The more you learn, the more you realise that this is what it’s really about: grand larceny is the pole around which British politics revolve.

A no-deal Brexit, that Boris Johnson seems to favour, is likely to cement the UK’s position as the global entrepot for organised crime. When the EU’s feeble restraints are removed, under a government that seems entirely uninterested in basic accountability, the message we send to the rest of the world will be even clearer than it is today: come here to wash your loot.

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For Your Eyes Only

George Monbiot Blog - Fri, 09/04/2020 - 10:45

The opaque and secretive networks on which Boris Johnson builds his power.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 2nd September 2020

To accumulate power, a government with authoritarian tendencies must first destroy power. It must reduce rival centres of power – the judiciary, the civil service, academia, broadcasters, local government, civil society – to satellites of its own authority, controlled from the centre, deprived of independent action. But it must do this while claiming to act in the people’s name.

So it needs an apparatus of justification: arguments that can be fed through a sympathetic press and manufactured into outrage against its rivals. This is where the intellectual work of such a government is focused. Dominic Cummings is not the sole architect of this project: much of the intellectual landscaping has been outsourced.

Since the 1950s, an infrastructure of persuasion has been built in the UK, whose purpose is to supplant civic power with the power of money. The model was developed by two fanatical disciples of Friedrich Hayek, the father of neoliberalism: Anthony Fisher and Oliver Smedley. They knew it was essential to disguise their intentions. While founding the first of the thinktanks whose purpose was to spread Hayek’s gospel, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Smedley reminded Fisher it was “imperative that we should give no indication in our literature that we are working to educate the Public along certain lines … That is why the first draft [of our aims] is written in rather cagey terms.”

The institute, and the other lobby groups Fisher founded, honed the arguments that would be used to strip down the state, curtail public welfare and public protection, and restrict and discipline other forms of social strength, releasing the ultra-rich from the constraints of democracy. Unsurprisingly, some of the richest people on Earth poured cash into his project. His groups translated Hayek’s ideas, that were seen by many as repulsive, into a new political common sense, producing the reframings and justifications on which Thatcher and Reagan built their revolutions. 

Others began to copy this model. In his autobiography, Madsen Pirie, the founder of the Adam Smith Institute, describes how, using funds from 20 of the UK’s biggest companies, he helped to chart the course that Margaret Thatcher took. Every Saturday, while Thatcher’s Conservatives were in opposition, staff from the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs sat down for lunch with her researchers, and leader writers and columnists from the Times and Telegraph, to plot the revolution that would bring her to power. They “planned strategy for the week ahead”,  and would “co-ordinate our activities to make us more effective collectively.” Pirie describes how he devised many of the policies that defined Thatcherism.

In Pirie’s book, in the testimony of the whistleblower Shahmir Sanni and elsewhere, there is evidence that these lobby groups coordinate their work, creating the impression that people in different places are spontaneously coming to the same conclusions. Several of them work from the same offices, in 55 and 57 Tufton Street, Westminster.

The lobby group that Boris Johnson’s government uses most is Policy Exchange. While it claims to be a neutral educational charity, it was founded in 2002 by the Conservative MPs Francis Maude and Archie Norman, and Nick Boles, who later also became a Tory MP. Its first chairman was Michael Gove. Its proposals and personnel have been adopted by the Conservative Party ever since.

It seems to me that Policy Exchange has played a crucial role in shifting power away from rival institutions and into the Prime Minister’s office. For several years it has been building a case for curtailing the judiciary. It provided the ammunition for the government’s current attack on judicial review.

Judicial review enables citizens to sue the government to uphold the law. It was the process Gina Miller used in 2016 to oblige Theresa May to seek parliamentary approval for Article 50, that began the Brexit process, and to overturn Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament last year.

Policy Exchange calls such rulings “judicial overreach”. It claims that they threaten the sovereignty of Parliament and the separation of powers between government and judiciary. To my mind they do the opposite. The law is not whatever Boris Johnson says it is. It is legislation passed by Parliament and interpreted by the courts. Both the Gina Miller cases returned powers to Parliament that prime ministers had seized. The government has appointed a former Conservative Minister, Lord Faulks, to examine judicial review, along the lines suggested by Policy Exchange.

The lobby group has called for the Prime Minister’s office to have greater powers “to develop and direct policy change” through the civil service, and to appoint leaders of public bodies whose “culture and values” align with government’s aims. It has led the public attacks against what it calls the “chilling effects” of leftwing views in academia. Its recent report on academic freedom was brilliantly eviscerated in the Guardian by Jonathan Portes, who found it riddled with basic statistical errors and mistaken assumptions. What purports to be a campaign for intellectual freedom looks more like a McCarthyite attempt to suppress left-leaning ideas. It’s an effective weapon in the government’s gathering culture war.

The thinktank’s proposals for changing the planning system, that involve a massive removal of power from local authorities, have been adopted wholesale by the government. One of the authors of this scheme, Jack Airey, has moved from Policy Exchange to Downing Street, as a special adviser.

Last year, Policy Exchange published a polemic that claimed Extinction Rebellion is led by dangerous extremists. As usual, it was widely covered by the media. Less discussed was the report that the lobby group has received funding from the power company Drax, the trade association Energy UK and the gas companies E.On and Cadent, whose fossil fuel investments are threatened by environmental activism. These are among the few funders whose identities we know. Policy Exchange is listed by WhoFundsYou as among the most opaque thinktanks in the UK.

It might seem remarkable that its activities qualify as charitable: without having to reveal its funders, while promoting shifts that could harm civil society, Policy Exchange remains a registered charity. Conservative governments attach great importance to the way charities are overseen. In 2018, a parliamentary committee sent the government an unprecedented letter, pointing out that the government’s preferred candidate as chair of the Charity Commission, the former Tory minister Baroness Tina Stowell, was “unable to demonstrate … any real insight, knowledge or vision”; could not be seen as neutral; and had failed to withstand the committee’s scrutiny. The government appointed her anyway, and she remains chair today.

By such means, political life is steadily undermined, until little remains but authority and obedience to the Prime Minister. Without strong civic institutions, society loses its power. From the point of view of global capital, that’s mission accomplished. To resist the government’s machinations, first we must understand them.

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Unforced variations: Sep 2020

Real Climate - Tue, 09/01/2020 - 21:33

This month’s open thread on climate science topics. Things to look for – Arctic sea ice minimum, boreal wildfires and the Atlantic hurricane season – you know, the usual…

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Population Panic

George Monbiot Blog - Mon, 08/31/2020 - 20:46

The obsession with the birthrates of the poor has a grim history, and is used by the rich to transfer blame.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 26th August 2020

When a major study was published last month, showing that the global population is likely to peak then crash much sooner than most scientists had assumed, I naïvely imagined that people in rich nations would at last stop blaming all the world’s environmental problems on population growth. I was wrong. If anything, it appears to have got worse.

Next week the BirthStrike movement – founded by women who, by announcing their decision not to have children, seek to focus our minds on the horror of environmental collapse – will dissolve itself, as its cause has been hijacked so virulently and persistently by population obsessives. The founders explain that they had “underestimated the power of ‘overpopulation’ as a growing form of climate breakdown denial”.

It is true that, in some parts of the world, population growth is a major driver of particular kinds of ecological damage, such as the expansion of small-scale agriculture into rainforests, the bushmeat trade and local pressure on water and land for housing. But its global impact is much smaller than many people claim.

The formula for calculating people’s environmental footprint is simple, but widely misunderstood: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology (I = PAT). The global rate of consumption growth, before the pandemic, was 3% a year. Population growth is 1%. Some people assume this means that the rise in population bears one third of the responsibility for increased consumption. But population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated among the world’s poorest people, who have scarcely any A or T to multiply their P. The extra resource use and greenhouse gas emissions caused by a rising human population are a tiny fraction of the impact of consumption growth.

Yet it is widely used as a blanket explanation of environmental breakdown. Panic about population growth enables the people most responsible for the impacts of rising consumption (the affluent) to blame those who are least responsible.

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, who is a patron of the charity Population Matters, told the assembled pollutocrats, some of whom have ecological footprints thousands of times greater than the global average, “All these things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.” I doubt that any of those who nodded and clapped were thinking, “yes, I urgently need to disappear.”

In 2019, she appeared in an advertisement for British Airways, whose customers produce more greenhouse gas emissions on one flight than many of the world’s people generate in a year. If we had the global population of 500 years ago (around 500 million), and if it were composed of average UK plane passengers, our environmental impact would probably be greater than that of the 7.8 billion alive today.

She proposed no mechanism by which her dream might come true. This could be the attraction. The very impotence of her call is reassuring to those who don’t want change. If the answer to environmental crisis is to wish other people away, we might as well give up and carry on consuming.

The excessive emphasis on population growth has a grim history. Since the clergymen Joseph Townsend and Thomas Malthus wrote their tracts in the 18th Century, poverty and hunger have been blamed not on starvation wages, war, misrule and wealth extraction by the rich, but on the reproduction rates of the poor. Winston Churchill blamed the Bengal Famine of 1943, that he helped to cause through the mass export of India’s rice, on the Indians “breeding like rabbits”. In 2013 Sir David Attenborough, also a patron of Population Matters,wrongly blamed famines in Ethiopia on “too many people for too little land”, and suggested that sending food aid was counter-productive.

Another of the charity’s patrons, Paul Ehrlich, whose incorrect predictions about mass famine helped to provoke the current population panic, once argued that the US should “coerce” India into “sterilising all Indian males with three or more children”, by making food aid conditional on this policy. This proposal was similar to the brutal programme that Indira Gandhi later introduced, with financial support from the UN and the World Bank.

Foreign aid from the UK was funding crude and dangerous sterilisation in India as recently as 2011, on the grounds that this policy was helping to “fight climate change”. Some of the victims of this programme allege that they were forced to participate. At the same time, the UK government was pouring billions of pounds of aid into developing coal, gas and oil plants, in India and other nations. It blamed the poor for the crisis it was helping to cause.

Malthusiasm slides easily into racism. The great majority of the world’s population growth is happening in the poorest countries, where most people are black or brown. The colonial powers justified their atrocities by fomenting a moral panic about “barbaric”, “degenerate” people “outbreeding” the “superior races”. These claims have been revived today by the far right, promoting conspiracy theories about “white replacement” and “white genocide”. When affluent white people wrongly transfer blame for their environmental impacts to the birthrate of much poorer brown and black people, their finger-pointing reinforces these narratives. It is inherently racist.

The far right now uses the population argument to contest immigration into the US and the UK. This too has a grisly heritage: the pioneering conservationist Madison Grant promoted, alongside his environmental work, the idea that the “Nordic master race” was being “overtaken” in the US by “worthless race types.” As president of the Immigration Restriction League, he helped to engineer the vicious 1924 Immigration Act.

But, as there are some genuine ecological impacts of population growth, how do we distinguish proportionate concerns about these harms from deflection and racism? Well, we know that the strongest determinant of falling birth rates is female emancipation and education. The major obstacle to female empowerment is extreme poverty, whose effect is felt disproportionately by women.

So a good way of deciding whether someone’s population concerns are genuine is to look at their record of campaigning against structural poverty. Have they contested the impossible debts poor nations are required to pay? Have they argued against corporate tax avoidance, or extractive industries that drain wealth from poorer countries, leaving almost nothing behind, or our own financial sector’s processing of money stolen abroad? Or have they simply sat and watched as people remain locked in poverty, then complained about their fertility?

Before long, this reproductive panic will disappear. Nations will soon be fighting over immigrants: not to exclude them, but to attract them, as the demographic transition leaves their ageing populations with a shrinking tax base and a dearth of key workers. Until then, we should resist attempts by the rich to demonise the poor.

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Finding Our Feet

George Monbiot Blog - Fri, 08/21/2020 - 06:13

Landed power, built on theft, slavery and colonial looting, crushes our freedoms. It is time to reclaim them.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th August 2020

Boris Johnson’s attack on our planning laws is both very new and very old. It is new because it scraps the English system for deciding how land should be used, replacing it with something closer to the US model. It is old because it represents yet another transfer of power from the rest of us to the lords of the land, a process that has been happening, with occasional reversals, since 1066.

A power that in 1947 was secured for the public – the democratic right to influence the building that affects our lives – is now being retrieved by building companies, developers and the people who profit most from development, the landowners. This is part of England’s long tradition of enclosure: seizing a common good and giving it to the rich and powerful. Democracy is replaced with the power of money.

Almost all of us, in England and many other nations, are born on the wrong side of the law. The disproportionate weight the law gives to property rights makes nearly everyone a second-class citizen before they draw their first breath, fenced out of the good life we could lead.

Our legislation’s failure to moderate the claims of property denies other fundamental rights. Among them is equality before the law. If you own large tracts of land, a great weight of law sits on your side, defending your inordinate privileges from those who don’t. We are forbidden to exercise a crucial democratic right – the right to protest – on all but the diminishing pockets of publicly-owned land. If we try to express dissent anywhere else, we can be arrested immediately.

The freedom to walk is as fundamental a right as freedom of speech, but in England it is denied across 92% of the land. Though we give landowners £3 billion a year from our own pockets in the form of farm subsidies, we are banned from most of what we pay for. The big estates have seized and walled off the most beautiful vistas in England. In many parts of the country, we are confined to narrow footpaths across depressing landscapes, surrounded by barbed wire. Those who cannot afford to travel and stay in the regions with greater access (mostly in the north-west) have nowhere else to go.

The pandemic has reminded us that access to land is critical to our mental and physical well-being. Children in particular desperately need wild and interesting places in which they can freely roam. A large body of research, endorsed by the government, suggests that our mental health is greatly enhanced by connection to nature. Yet we are forced to skulk around the edges of our nation, unwelcome anywhere but in a few green cages and places we must pay to enter, while vast estates are reserved for single families to enjoy.

This government seeks not to redress the imbalance, but to exacerbate it. Its proposal to criminalise trespass would deny the rights of travelling people (Gypsies, Roma and Travellers) to pursue their lives. It also threatens to turn landowners’ fences into prison walls. Last week I mentioned the illegal quarrying of the River Honddhu I discovered. Had I not been trespassing, I would not have seen it and had it stopped. Criminalising trespass would put free range people outside the law, and landowners above the law.

The government’s proposed award to landowners and builders, of blanket planning permission across great tracts of England, will tilt the law even further towards property. Housing estates will be designed not for the benefit of those who live in them, but for the benefit of those who build them. We will see more vertical slums as office blocks are turned into housing, and more depressing suburbs without schools, shops, public transport or green spaces, entirely dependent on the car. It will do nothing to solve our housing crisis, which is not caused by delays in the planning system but by developers hoarding land to keep prices high, homes used for investment rather than living, and the government’s lack of interest in social housing. By shutting down our objections, Johnson’s proposal is a direct attack on our freedoms. It is a gift to the property tycoons who have poured £11 million into the Conservative party since he became Prime Minister: a gift seized from the rest of us.

But we will not watch passively as we are turned into even more inferior citizens. Launched today, a new book seeks to challenge and expose the mesmerising power that landownership exerts on this country, and to show how we can challenge its presumptions. The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes, is massively researched but lightly delivered, a remarkable and truly radical work, loaded with resonant truths and stunningly illustrated by the author.

It shows how the great estates, from which we are excluded, were created by a combination of theft from the people of Britain (the enclosure of our commons) and theft from the people of other nations, as profits from the slave trade, colonial looting and much of the $45 trillion bled from India were invested into grand houses and miles of wall: blood money translated into neoclassical architecture.

It reveals how the “decorative pomp and verbose flummery” with which the great estates are surrounded disguises this theft, and disguises the rentier capitalism they continue to practice. It explains how the landowners’ walls divide the nation, not only physically but also socially and politically. It shows how the law was tilted away from the defence of people and towards the defence of things. It shows how trespass helps to breach the mental walls that keep us apart.

Accompanying the book is a new campaign, calling for the right to roam in England to be extended to rivers, woodland, downland and uncultivated land in the greenbelt, and to include camping, kayaking, swimming and climbing. This is less comprehensive than the rights in Scotland, which, despite the dire predictions of the landowners, has caused little friction and a massive improvement in public enjoyment. But it would greatly enhance the sense that the nation belongs to all of us rather than a select few. A petition to parliament launched by Guy Shrubsole, author of another crucial book, Who Owns England, seeks to stop the criminalisation of trespass. Please sign it.

We can expect these efforts to be testerically opposed in the billionaire press. This is what happened when a group of us launched the Land for the Many report last year: it was greeted by furious attacks and outrageous falsehoods across the rightwing papers. Even the mildest attempts to rebalance our rights are treated as an existential threat by those whose privilege is ratified by law. But we cannot allow their fury to deter us. It is time to decolonise the land.

Categories: Blogtastic

Denial and Alarmism in the Near-Term Extinction and Collapse Debate

Real Climate - Fri, 08/21/2020 - 01:18

Guest article by Alastair McIntosh,  honorary professor in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. This is an excerpt from his new book, Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being

Mostly, we only know what we think we know about climate science because of the climate science. I have had many run-ins with denialists, contrarians or climate change dismissives as they are variously called. Over the past two years especially, concern has also moved to the other end of the spectrum, to alarmism. Both ends, while the latter has been more thinly tapered, can represent forms of denial. In this abridged adaptation I will start with denialism, but round on the more recent friendly fire on science that has emerged in alarmism.

Climate change dismissives

One of my more peculiar run-ins with a dismissive voice was through an online debate in 2010 that ECOS, the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists, organised between me and an English wildlife ecologist, Peter Taylor. Taylor’s 2009 book, Chill, argued that far from living in a world that’s heating up, ‘the period 2002–07 marks a turning point, then glaciers will begin to grow and ice mass begin to accumulate again, thus levelling off the sea level rises’. He saw the cold winter of 2008–9 as heralding the coming ice age(1). Being an ecologist, this made him a hero of climate change denialism, an avid convert from the other church; and for a time, Chill ranked as number one in Amazon UK’s bestselling league for ‘global warming’.

Invariably I have found myself asking of such figures, who have no credibly peer-reviewed publications in climate science: what makes them think that they know better than experts with a reputation worth not losing? I also ask myself what drives their attitudes. Often, these are a class of people heavily invested in consumerist lifestyles. Their material markers of identity and prestige, and their masks of distraction from what is challenging in life may be at stake. Some just don’t care. I define consumerism as consumption that is in excess of what is needed for a dignified sufficiency of living. However, a handful of the most effective dismissives don’t fit obvious characterisation, being more altruistic in holding their position. Peter Taylor is one such, and my late friend the botanist and TV celebrity Professor David Bellamy was another. Taylor concedes that the heavy impact of climate mitigation measures on nature and landscapes – terrestrial wind farms in particular – has influenced his views. Bellamy, likewise.

At the time of our ECOS exchange, Taylor praised it, saying: ‘I know of no other consistent debate on this important issue.’ Not having been in touch for years, I dropped him a line while writing this book. I asked: given that his forecast ‘chill’ has not materialised, did he think that it was coming yet, for all that? His reply was characteristically warm and cheerful. It left my question feeling almost mean-spirited. He made no reference back to his previous predictions. Instead, to my astonishment, he wrote of ‘record warmth – just as we could expect’, that the current warm period ‘may have two or three centuries to run’, and the next ice age is not just around the corner but ‘three to four hundred years away’(2). It seemed that the denial had full astern gone retrograde. I scratched my head and gave a weary nod to all those hours spent on the ECOS great debate.

Heavy ad hominem artillery

Other run-ins have had a less avuncular if, paradoxically, a more jaunty feel to them. The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) is Britain’s foremost ‘climate sceptic’ lobby group. Set up by Lord (Nigel) Lawson of Blaby, Mrs Thatcher’s former chancellor of the exchequer, its website is literally a ‘dark’ web in its presenting colour scheme. Its board comprises a formidable array of heavyweight political figures, contrarian scientists and erstwhile captains of commerce, the media and the civil service. To see power at work – elevated, concentrated and networked – go no further than to take a look online, and gape(3). Most such lobby bodies no longer say that global warming isn’t happening. Instead, they’ll take issue with abstruse elements of the scientific data, with the extrapolated rate of heating, with the attribution of its causes or with the expected impact and anticipated costs – not least the ‘socialist’ taxation and regulatory implications – of actually doing something.

Lord Lawson refuses to disclose the sources of the GWPF’s funding, conceding only that he relies on friends who ‘tend to be richer than the average person and much more intelligent than the average person’(4). Since 2017 its deputy-director has been Andrew Montford, a chemist by original training, turned chartered accountant(5). My encounter with Montford came in 2010 when The Scottish Review of Books asked me to review his investigative work, The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science, which claims to be a ‘demolition of the veracity’ of Michael Mann’s hockey stick curve(6). Like Taylor’s Chill a year earlier, the book quickly achieved cult status amongst climate change deniers. I concluded that at best it might help to keep already-overstretched scientists on their toes. At worst, it was a yapping terrier worrying the bull, one that cripples action, potentially costing lives and livelihoods(7).

Montford runs a blog from which, under the pseudonym of ‘Bishop Hill’, he lampoons the high priests (as he sees them) of climate science and all such hooey as green taxes, subsidies, legislation and self-righteous preaching from the likes of, well, yours faithfully. His Grace, as his congregation deferentially refer to him, responded to my piece with two blogs that had me tossed into the dungeons of the Inquisition for heretical impertinence, an abomination unto the sensibilities of the Lord. A crusade was launched, a jihad ensued, and fusillades were fired from keyboards poised in every corner of his parish. In all, some 150 comments linger as remaining landmines on the good bishop’s website.

‘He is an enemy of the people and the state and is declared anathema,’ said one. I took the humour as a badge of office. Even better, said another: ‘Deploy heavy ad hominem artillery to characterize [him] as a coprophagic protocranial.’ Verily, it’s a sorry day when a literary reviewer has to go and look up even simple dictionary words. ‘Adopt a lordly disdain and ignore him.’ ‘He and his eco-chums are in it for the money.’ ‘Another one of these weird Highlanders who seem to dominate Scotland.’ ‘Alastair, just keep tossing off your caber.’ ‘Yer Grace, show no quarter, none will be given.’ ‘He deserves a kicking.’(8)

I came out of such a Punch and Judy show well able to brush off the laugh. But it was all right for me. I make use of climate science coming from an early background of just a general earth sciences degree. I pitch no claim to be a climate scientist. Others, at the heart of science – whether Mann in the USA, or the English scientists such as Phil Jones caught up at the heart of ‘Climategate’ at the University of East Anglia – suffer for their work. No quarter is the order of their day.

Alarmism, doomism and Roger Hallam

What most scientists had not foreseen with an eye so fixated on the artillery of denialism, was the sustained and one would presume well-intentioned misuse of science from the other end of the spectrum, by those who do accept the reality of climate change. When Extinction Rebellion began in England, it conveyed a sense of being witnesses to the cascade of plant and animal extinctions that are escalating around the world as many habitats become less habitable. There is no scientific quibble with that. However, the narrative soon escalated to human death on a massive and imminent scale. As the prominent co-founder Roger Hallam saw it, the burning question had become: ‘How do we avoid extinction?’

His 2019 manifesto, Common Sense for the 21st Century(9), was written in his own name but widely hailed as representing the views of Extinction Rebellion and heavily promoted by the organisation’s London HQ. Referencing his claim to ‘one recent scientific opinion’, he warns of 6 to 7 billion people dead as a result of climate change ‘within the next generation or two’. The paper cited as his authority in the footnotes makes no such claim(10). It is purely Hallam’s extrapolation of a 5°C world, given what Common Sense calls ‘the central role of methane in a climate emergency . . . with the system spiralling out of our control and the likelihood of global collapse within a decade or two’. He reiterated the mass dieback claim in a BBC News interview feature, trenchantly insisting: ‘I am talking about the slaughter, death and starvation of 6 billion people this century – that’s what the science predicts.’(11)

Climate Feedback, a website more used to taking on deniers than alarmists, invited an expert panel to give their opinions on this prediction. The responses ranged from ‘an illustration of a worst-case scenario’ to ‘wild speculation’. Ken Caldeira, senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution, put it bluntly: ‘I know of no climate model simulation or analysis in the quality peer-reviewed literature that provides any indication’ that there is a substantial probability, above zero, of 6 billion deaths this century.(12)

Jem Bendell and ‘Deep Adaptation’

Meanwhile, a variation of the theme was coming in from Jem Bendell, a business school professor at the University of Cumbria in the north of England. An expert in digital currencies, his staff web page playfully describes how it earned him the moniker ‘Professor Bitcoin’(13). Bendell’s contribution to Extinction Rebellion’s manifesto, This is Not a Drill, tells that he ‘grieved how I may not grow old’(14). The manifesto thesis for which he is now known, Deep Adaptation, anticipates ‘inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change’ resulting in ‘probable catastrophe and possible extinction’(15). This, as he wrote on his blog, could be expected ‘in many, perhaps most, countries of the world . . . within 10 years’(16). He spelt out both the imminence and what it would look like in a roundup of where he considered the climate science stood as of 2018.

‘But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.’(17)

Deep Adaptation was originally an academic paper that had failed peer review for lack of scholarly rigour. Bendell posted it to the web in 2018, achieving an astonishing half a million downloads within the first year. Part of his rationale leans on what he describes as ‘data published by scientists from the Arctic News’. However, Arctic News is no scholarly tome. It is a blog site that, amidst lurid illustrations, invokes the methane bomb and projects a possible global temperature rise of 10°C, by 2026, based on ‘adjusted NASA data’ heralding the ‘mass extinction of man’(18). Again, the pushback comes from within the scientific community itself. A journalist asked Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading climate experts what he made of Bendell’s paper. Schmidt said, and further pressed the point on his Twitter account, that it mixes ‘both valid points and unjustified statements throughout’, but is ‘not based on anything real’(19).

In a 2019 blog, Bendell responded to criticisms of his slant on the science. He describes his grief at having chosen not to have children, partly because they are ‘the greatest contribution to carbon emissions that you could make’ and partly out of ‘the realization of the world they will have to live and die within’. He concludes that in future he will not be replying to, but rather, stepping away from, such controversies around his scientific claims to focus instead on building up the community around Deep Adaptation(20), the activities of which include workshops, trainings, residencies in Bali, and an annual retreat at a yoga centre in Greece to ‘support peaceful empowered surrender to our predicament, where action can arise from an engaged love of humanity and nature, rather than redundant stories of worth and purpose’(21).

However, within a year of his withdrawal from scientific debate, he wrote a further blog having requested Schmidt to render his criticism specific. Schmidt obliged, providing a raft of reproofs including his assessment that Deep Adaptation’s take on Arctic methane was ‘totally misleading’, and that its pitch on runaway climate change was ‘nonsense’. The professor, whose day job was to teach ‘a sustainability-themed MBA programme’, was unwilling to concede any significant ground to NASA’s top climate scientist. Digging in his heels, the blog concluded: ‘I have identified two minor corrections and two clarifications I will make on the paper. However, none of those are material to the situation we are in and none of the main points are revoked.’(22)

Shortly afterwards, BBC News ran a feature that profiled Bendell and his most ardent ‘followers’ as ‘climate doomers’. It quoted Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford, as saying that he considers Deep Adaptation to display ‘the level of science of the anti-vax campaign’(23). In counterpoint, it also cited Will Steffen, a retired scientist who had served on the Australian Climate Commission, suggesting that Bendell may be ‘ahead of the game in warning us about what we might need to prepare for’. The pity of it all is that Bendell’s core agenda – about the need for resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and recently he has added reconciliation – is both necessary and inspiring. That is why he has gathered such a following amongst people who are hungry for deeper meaning. We need people like him and Hallam who, at their most effective, and if they discipline themselves to the settled science, can take an overview of things, drawing out what most matters, contextualising it and presenting it to the public in ways more digestible than the raw IPCC reports. There is for each of us so much that is good and right to do anyway, without having to overreach our fields of expertise, conflate climate change with other causes and play fast and loose with signs seen in the sky.

Arctic News, McPherson and doomsday 2026

Meanwhile, Arctic News’ chosen doomsday date of 2026 doubles as the apocalyptic year of choice of Guy McPherson, a retired professor of evolutionary and resource ecology at the University of Arizona, and Bendell’s referenced source in Deep Adaptation where discussing fears of an ‘inevitable methane release . . . leading to the extinction of the human race’(24). McPherson, in turn and in a way that starts to feel rather circular, references his claims back to material from Arctic News, as well as to extrapolation from a range of scientific papers and other sources that, he says, ‘even 10-year-olds understand . . . and [that] Wikipedia accepts [as] the evidence for near-term human extinction’. The phrase used there, Near Term Human Extinction, has gathered a considerable ecopopulist cult following, complete with the social media hashtag #NTHE and online mental health support groups for the depressed and suicidal. The professor crisply reiterated and summed up his position in an interview given in 2018: ‘Specifically, I predict that there will be no humans on Earth by 2026, based on projections of near-term planetary temperature rise and the demise of myriad species that support our own existence.’(25)

His website, Nature Bats Last, prominently offers suicide advice on its home page [Ed. which we are not linking to]. While advising against such a move, he counsels that it can nevertheless ‘be a thoughtful decision’, and with this endorsement he bizarrely links to the post-mortem website of Martin Manley of Kansas, who intricately blogged the preparations for his own departure by self-inflicted gunshot in a parking lot(26). For those who believe in the severity and particularly the imminence of their prognostications, such alarmism arguably crosses over into the realm of fantasy. If conflated with reality, this risks its own potentially tragic consequences.

Breakdown to break through?

There are other sides to the position that I have taken here against alarmism. An activist friend put it to me that what Bendell’s work does is that it pushes a point to make a point. It usefully brings people to the state of breakdown, from where they can break through into the new social norms that are demanded by deep adaptation. It also expresses the precautionary principle. My view, is that if a case can’t be made without it being over-egged, either the case is not valid or those to whom it is being pitched are being spun. Exaggeration or invoking fear and panic only entrenches positions and sets up a backlash. The unembellished science is quite bad enough to be good enough.

I get people coming up at my talks, or sending in an email, then being disappointed when I tell them that I only partly buy into the fears stimulated by prominent alarmists. Because I say I’m sticking to consensus science – even knowing that it can never be bang up to date and that its expression will be sure but probably cautious – I suspect they sometimes think that I’m the denier. A climate model researcher in Sweden dropped me a line, saying that he gets the same disappointed reactions, adding that ‘some teenagers are distraught on this, so the alarmism of such actors is taking a heavy and unjustifiable psychological toll on others.’ Those who work with young people warn of the consequences of growing ‘climate anxiety’(27).

None of this is to suggest that what is happening to the planet ought not provoke anxiety. I said to the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, that I often find myself racked between the deniers and the alarmists, trying to hold on to the humanity of both, recognising their fears or differing priorities, and yet insisting on consensus science. She answered, ‘It is a narrow and lonely place so it’s great to have company!’(28). Michael Mann concurs. He sees ‘doomism and despair’ that exceeds the science as being ‘extremely destructive and extremely influential’. It has built up ‘a huge number of followers and it has been exploited and co-opted by the forces of denial and delay’. ‘Good scientists aren’t alarmists,’ he insists. ‘Our message may be – and in fact is – alarming . . . The distinction is so very, very critical and cannot be brushed under the rug.’(30)

Neither Hayhoe nor Mann are the kind of scientists who take distance from campaigning as ‘climate advocates’, as the former puts it. Both openly support and encourage protest that rests on a firm evidence base. In April 2019, they were amongst the twenty-two lead authors of a letter to Science, headed ‘Concerns of young protesters are justified.’ Along with more than 3,000 other experts who added their names as co-signatories, it stated: ‘We call for our colleagues across all disciplines and from the entire world to support these young climate protesters. We declare: Their concerns are justified and supported by the best available science.’

The tension, then, is not between science and protest. The tension is between science and multiplying up its extreme ends of likelihood in ways that are tantamount to pseudoscience: ‘If the worst imaginable happens it is this. And if the worst of that happens, it is this.’ The ancient Celts were justified in their greatest fear that the sky would fall in. The asteroid may be on its way right now. But real science balances up the probabilities.

Millennialism or future possibilities?

Like denialism, alarmism distorts our temporal horizons of what is possible. As the veteran Greenpeace campaigner Chris Rose suggests, its ‘gloom picking’ leads to ‘solutions denial’ that ramps up ‘climate grief’ that exploits the poorly informed(31). In their panic, many of its key proponents advocate potentially disastrous fixes, the magic bullet of geoengineering especially, and that, in the form of solar radiation modification. I agree with those who say: ‘There isn’t enough time.’ And yet, the opposite of one great truth is very often another great truth. As an Arabic proverb puts it: ‘Haste is the key to sorrow.’ If our politics are deep green, we must pay attention to the fact that, already, nativist forms of ecofascism have drawn blood on growing alt-right fringes of drawbridge environmentalism. The ‘Unabomber’ and the Christchurch mosque gunman both appealed to certain types of ‘green’ narrative in their manifestos(32).

All this is why I walk along the ridge of Katharine Hayhoe’s ‘narrow and lonely place’. To over-egg the cake is like those terrorist alerts that remain forever high. Alarmists who extrapolate beyond sound evidence may be right, but if so, by the wrong process. The upside, is that they may perversely hit it lucky and warn of something of which others had been too cautious. The downside, is that in the long run they undermine the very principles of truth that they purport to speak.

Alarmism feeds upon the natural fears and decent trust of the understandably uninformed. It allows the enemies of climate action to paint climate science as the domain of wacky prophets and their followers, who have to keep on revising upwards their forecast date of doomsday. It draws those who have been caught up in such thinking into the cognitive dissonance reduction of looking for, and in a strange way maybe even hoping, that the signs on which they have staked so much are being fulfilled. This chimera of narratorial control affords an illusory sense of agency, and perhaps prestige, to individuals who may lack the humility, or be too captivated by their personal fears, to accept the limitations of their knowing as well as the wider ambiguities of emergent knowledge. Where pronounced, such alarmism can echo a ‘conspiracy mentality’ zeal, such as the philosopher Quassim Cassam characterises in figures who might be ‘quick to denounce mainstream academia for rejecting their theories [yet] crave academic respectability … and trumpet their PhDs, whatever their subject.’(33)

Moreover, in an age of perhaps renewed spiritual searching this can pander to climate change millennialism in a ‘phony holy’ cultic psychology. Certainly, it might correctly second guess the future. But if so, probably only as an artifact of flawed or grandiose reasoning. More probably, it will merely escalate the psychological defensive mechanisms used to maintain ‘cognitive consistency’, and these, much as Festinger and colleagues memorably described in their 1950s doomsday study, When Prophecy Fails.(34)

The only remedy is that in our understandable despair and burning yearning for change, we must keep head engaged, as well as heart and hand. We have no mandate to collapse the possibilities of the future, to contract and restrict our latitude for agency and action. Climate change denial is a waste of time. But climate change alarmism is a theft of time.

  1. Peter Taylor, Chill: A reassessment of global warming theory, Clairview, East Sussex, 2009, pp. 232, 268–9, 301. The ECOS debate in 2010 has since been lost in a website revamp. I retain the email thread.
  2. Emails from Peter Taylor drawn upon here are 31 October 2010 and 18–19 November 2019.
  3. Board of Trustees’, Global Warming Policy Foundation, 3 February 2020.
  4. Bob Ward, ‘Secret funding of climate sceptics is not restricted to the US’, The Guardian, 15 February 2013.
  5. Andrew W. Montford’, Desmog, 2017.
  6. Montford, A.W., published by Stacey International, London, 2010. See also Tamino, ‘The Montford Delusion’, RealClimate, 22 July 2010.
  7. Alastair McIntosh, ‘Review of The Hockey Stick Illusion’, Scottish Review of Books, 6:3, August 2010.
  8. Bishop Hill, ‘Scottish Review of Books’, 14 August 2010; and ‘Did he read it?’ 17 August 2010.
  9. Roger Hallam, Common Sense for the 21st Century, PDF version 0.3.
  10. Xu paper used by Hallam: Yangyang Xu and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, ‘Well below 2°C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes’, PNAS, 114:39, 2017, pp. 10,315–23.
  11. BBC News, Roger Hallam interviewed by Stephen Sackur, BBC HardTalk, 17 August 2019.
  12. Scott Johnson (ed.), ‘Prediction by Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam that climate change will kill 6 billion people by 2100 is unsupported’, Climate Feedback, 22 August 2019.
  13. University of Cumbria, ‘Professor Jem Bendell, PhD’, Institute for Leadership Sustainability, Business.
  14. Jem Bendell, ‘Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse’, This is Not a Drill, op. cit., pp. 73–7.
  15. Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation: a Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, IFLAS Occasional Paper 2 (Postscript: The link to the original 27 July 2018 version of the paper on this landing site, the version from which I have quoted, was taken down and replaced with a Revised 2nd Edition on 27 July 2020. The original can still be accessed online. The new version came a fortnight after a challenging and much-remarked upon criticism of the science of Deep Adaptation from three scientist members of Extinction Rebellion: Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall and Colleen Schmidt, ‘The faulty science, doomism and flawed conclusions of Deep Adaptation’, Open Democracy, 14 July 2020. Amongst the changes made, are that a section about Arctic methane has been removed, meaning that Arctic News is no longer cited within the body text although it remains in the references. Most revealing is a welcome change made in the abstract. The original opened: ‘The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change.’ The revised, shifts from a statement of fact to one of opinion (my italics): ‘The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate change.’ Bendell has pushed back strongly against the Open Democracy critique, commencing with his riposte: ‘Letter to Deep Adaptation Advocate Volunteers about Misrepresentation of the Agenda and Movement‘, Professor Jem Bendell blog, 15 July 2020. An extensive debate followed on Twitter, for example, multiple threads down from Tom Nicholas).
  16. Jem Bendell, ‘A Year of Deep Adaptation’, Professor Jem Bendell blog, 7 July 2019. This is also the source of the half-million downloads statistic. Note that the coronavirus is not (in any obvious way) caused by climate change.
  17. Jem Bendell, ‘A Summary of Some Climate Science in 2018’, Professor Jem Bendell blog, 22 March 2018.
  18. Arctic News page linked by Bendell: Sam Carana, ‘Warning Climate Warning!! Alert: Signs of Extinction’, Arctic News, 3 March 2018. I’ve also cited from pages linked thereto. A number of the writers featured in Arctic News, including John Nissen, were associated a decade ago with AMEG, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group.
  19. Mann and Schmidt, Twitter thread, 22 November 2019. Schmidt, first quote in the tweet, second in the Nafeez Ahmed Vice article linked by Mann to whom Schmidt was responding.
  20. Jem Bendell, ‘Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation’, Resilience, 15 April 2019.
  21. Deep Adaptation Retreat with Jem Bendell and Katie Karr: Inner resilience for tending a sacred unravelling’, Kalikalos Holistic Network, 2020. Also, with comments at the bottom around the dilemmas of flying to such a location in 2018 retreat) and (2019 retreat).
  22. Jem Bendell: ‘The Worst Argument to Try to Win: Response to Criticism of the Climate Science in Deep Adaptation’, Professor Jem Bendell blog, 27 February 2020.
  23. Jack Hunter, ‘The “climate doomers” preparing for society to fall apart’, BBC News, 16 March 2020.
  24. Bendell, Deep Adaptation, op. cit., with citation to Guy McPherson’s ‘Climate Change Summary and Update’, Nature Bats Last, update 2 August 2016.
  25. Rajani Kanth, ‘On Imminent Human Extinction: [Guy McPherson] Interviewed by Rajani Kanth’, Nature Bats Last, 12 October 2018. Also, Guy McPherson, Twitter, 25 September 2019: (tweet now unavailable, account now deleted).
  26. Guy McPherson, ‘Contemplating Suicide? Please Read This’, Nature Bats Last, 8 July 2014.
  27. Matthew Taylor and Jessica Murray, ‘“Overwhelming and terrifying”: the rise of climate anxiety’, The Guardian, 10 February 2020.
  28. Katharine Hayhoe, Twitter, 19 December 2019.
  29. Michael Mann (on Guy McPherson), Twitter, 13 August 2019.
  30. Michael Mann, Twitter, 16 February 2019:
  31. Chris Rose, ‘Tragedy or Scandal? Strategies Of GT, XR and the New Climate Movement’, Three Worlds blog, 13 February 2020. Full paper.
  32. Likewise, the debate around green Nazism. See Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, Marc Cioc and Thomas Zeller (eds), How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, Ohio University Press, 2005.
  33. Quassim Cassam, Conspiracy Theories, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2019, p. 25.
  34. Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken & Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, Harper, New York, 1964.

Categories: Blogtastic

Watery Grave

George Monbiot Blog - Fri, 08/14/2020 - 09:33

Across the UK, our rivers are being turned into filthy, dead gutters, at astonishing, heartbreaking speed.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th August 2020

You can judge the state of a nation by the state of its rivers. Pollution is the physical expression of corruption. So what should we conclude about a country whose rivers are systematically exploited, dumped on and bled dry?

I’m writing from the Welsh borders, where I’m supposed to be on holiday. It’s among the most beautiful regions of Britain, but the rivers here are dying before my eyes. When I last saw it, four years ago, the Monnow, a lovely tributary of the River Wye, had a mostly clean, stony bed. Now the bottom is smothered in slime and filamentous algae. In the back eddies, the rotting weed floats to the surface, carrying the stench of cow slurry.

A few days ago, part of another tributary of the Wye, the Llyfni, was wiped out by a pollution surge, for the third time in five years. Hundreds of trout, grayling and bullheads floated to the surface, while rare white-clawed crayfish crawled out of the water. In the Ewyas valley, I discovered, out of sight of any vantage point, that part of the Honddhu, another beautiful little river, is being illegally quarried for loose stone. Ancient alders and ashes on its banks have been ripped out to make way for the digger.

The Wye itself is dying at astonishing, heartbreaking speed. When I canoed it 10 years ago, the stones were clean. Now they are so slimy that you can scarcely stand up. In hot weather, the entire river stinks of chicken shit, from the 10 million birds being reared in the catchment. We made the mistake of swimming in it: I almost gagged when I smelt the water. The free range farms are the worst: the birds carpet the fields with their highly reactive dung, that’s washed into the catchment by rain. Several times a year, algal blooms now turn the clear river cloudy. The fish gasp for breath. Aquatic insects suffocate.

Similar disasters are happening across Britain. In the east of the country, the main issues are human sewage and abstraction. The privatised water companies, granted local monopolies on supply, extract vast dividends and salaries while investing as little as possible in pipes, sewage systems, reservoirs and pollution control. Instead of stopping leaks or discouraging overconsumption, they draw down the groundwater that feeds our rivers. Many now run dry for part of the year. There are only 225 chalk streams in the world, and 85% are in England. Yet several of these rare and precious ecosystems could disappear altogether.

The water companies blatantly abuse the “exceptional circumstances” rule[], which allows them to discharge raw sewage into our rivers during extreme storms and floods. Official records show that Anglian Water, for example, dumped untreated sewage into the River Stour for 8760 hours in 2019: in other words, every hour of the year.

In the west of Britain, the main issue is livestock farming. As dairy and poultry units have consolidated, the manure they produce is greater than the land’s capacity to absorb it. As an agricultural contractor explained to the Welsh government, some farmers are deliberately spreading muck before high rainfall, so that it washes off their fields and into the rivers. A farm advisor told same inquiry that only 1% of farm slurry stores in Wales meet the regulations. When the stores inevitably leak, rivers become sewers. The collapse of sea trout populations in Wales maps almost precisely onto the distribution of dairy farms.

A reader in Cumbria writes to tell me that the neighbouring farmer drives his slurry tank down to the river at night to pump slurry straight into the water. A rare investigation by the Environment Agency found that 95% of farmers in the catchment of the River Axe in south-west England have failed to invest in proper slurry containment. As a result, 49% of these farms are polluting the river. The reason the agency’s internal report gave for this systemic crisis is that the government has been using a “voluntary approach”. Farms in the south west have their slurry stores inspected, on average, once every 200 years. Why upgrade your store if there’s little chance of getting caught?

What we are seeing across Britain is complete regulatory collapse. Even after the extreme and sudden pollution of the Llynfi, the “emergency” team at Natural Resources Wales failed to arrive for 13 hours, and refused to accept a water sample taken by a local person at the peak of the incident. In the Wye catchment, Powys County Council is licensing new chicken farms behind closed doors. In England, the Environment Agency turns a blind eye: of 76,000 pollution and fly tipping cases reported last year, just one resulted in a fixed penalty notice. Yes, one. As the ENDS Report documents, the agency’s own officers see its monitoring methods as completely useless.

In 2016, the Westminster government revealed that only 14% of England’s rivers are in good ecological condition. But instead of taking action, the government has followed Donald Trump’s coronavirus policy: if you want the issue to go away, stop testing. After 2016, it ceased annual monitoring and reporting. It told us to expect the next report in 2019. Then it said spring 2020. Now it says autumn 2020. Perhaps it means never.

The economic power of the water companies and the cultural power of the farmers both translate into political power. Special interests rule. The public and the living world come last. Peer into your local river, and you’ll see the political filth flow past.

Categories: Blogtastic

How to spot “alternative scientists”.

Real Climate - Wed, 08/12/2020 - 05:52

Recently, a so-called “white coat summit” gave me a sense of dejavu. It was held by a group that calls itself ‘America’s Frontline Doctors’ (AFD) that consisted of about a dozen people wearing white coats to the effect of achieving an appearance of being experts on medical matters.


The AFD apparently wanted to address a “massive disinformation campaign” (what irony) and counter the medical advice from real health experts. This move has a similar counterpart in climate science, where some individuals also have claimed to be experts and dismissed well-established scientific facts, eg. that emissions of CO2 from the use of fossil fuels results in global warming.


Climate science is not the only discipline where we see confusion sown by a small number of “renegades”. A few white-coated scholars have disputed the well-established danger of tobacco. We see similar attitudes among the “Intelligent Design” community and the so-called “anti-vaxxers”.


Statistically speaking, we should not be surprised by a few contrarians who have an exceptional opinion within a large scientific community. It is to be expected from a statistical point of view where there is a range of opinions, so there should be little reason to make a big deal out it.


On the other hand, there are some fascinating stories to be told. Sometimes there are individuals who can be described as “crackpots” and “quakesalvers” (e.g. a scholar believing in dowsing rods among the climate renegades and some within the AFD who talk about demons). Hollywood has even realized that some scientists may be mad, which has given us the familiar term “mad scientist”. But all “renegades” may of course not necessarily be mad.


Nevertheless, according to Snopes, the background of the individuals of the AFD is rather colourful. And there is nothing in the background provided about them that gave me any confidence in their judgement. On the contrary.


A sign that should trigger a big warning is that Snopes found it difficult to see who the AFD really are or where their conclusions really come from. The transparency is lacking and their story is murky. Especially so if the results have not been published through renowned peer-reviewed scientific journals. This is something we have seen time and again with climate change contrarians.


Any claim would be more convincing if colleagues independently are able to replicate the work and get the same results (without finding anything wrong with the process). This would require transparency and openness.


Another sign that should make you skeptical is if the claims have a dogmatic character. The AFD address is all dogma. This is also typical among the science deniers.


It’s also typical that the extreme fringes cannot falsify the established science and therefore move on to conspiracy theories. In the case of AFD, it is the alleged “massive disinformation campaign”.


Should we take such fringe views seriously? This type of “infodemics” seems to become a growing problem as described in a feature article in Physics World July 2020: ‘Fighting flat-Earth Theory’. The term “infodemic” reflects the fact that false information is just as contagious as an epidemic. Imposters dressed in white coats peddling false information can cause harm if people take them seriously.


The damage caused by erroneous information and conspiracy theories is discussed in the HBO documentary ‘After truth’, and the wildest claims can spread like a rampant disease as shown in that film.

We have witnessed how misinformation and lack of trust of true medical sciences have caused bad situations in some countries, while in others (eg. New Zealand, Canada, and some Nordic countries) the pandemic has been kept under control because the general public in general has followed the scientific health advice.


There is a common denominator when it comes to the AFD, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, “intelligent design”, chem-trail evangelists and those dismissing climate science. I think it may be useful to join forces within the broader scientific community to help the general public understand the real issues. This effort should also be on more general terms. People have a right to reliable and truthful information. Everybody should understand that anyone who spreads bullshit or lies also shows you a great deal of disrespect. The same goes for platforms spreading disinformation.


So what can we do to make people understand how science works and enhance the general science literacy? Is it better to teach people how to spot these “alternative scientists” (the term is inspired by “alternative facts”), conspiracy theories, and falsehoods, if we show a range of examples from different disciplines? We can probably learn from each others. There seems to be a lesson to be learned from the pandemic.

Categories: Blogtastic

Forced Responses: Aug 2020

Real Climate - Sat, 08/01/2020 - 11:48

This is the bimonthly thread on climate solutions. Climate Science discussions should go here.

Categories: Blogtastic

Unforced Variations: Aug 2020

Real Climate - Sat, 08/01/2020 - 11:45

This month’s open thread for climate science issues. People might want to keep an eye on the Arctic sea ice

Categories: Blogtastic

Somebody read the comments…

Real Climate - Wed, 07/29/2020 - 03:03

This post is just to highlight an interesting paper that’s just been published that analyzed the comment threads here and at WUWT.

Out now in Science Communication! We find that users in comment sections of climate change blogs mostly deploy polarizing strategies, which ultimately do not resolve framing differences. #openaccess

— Christel van Eck (@ChristelvanEck) July 28, 2020

In it, the authors analyze how the commenters interact, argue and attempt to persuade, mostly, to be fair, unsuccessfully. It may be that seeing how academics analyse the arguments, some commenters might want to modify their approach… who knows?

The comment threads they looked at (I think) are from five posts from Feb to April 2019, including The best case for worst case scenarios, Nenana Ice Classic 2019, First successful model simulation of the past 3 million years and a couple of open threads.

  1. C.W. van Eck, B.C. Mulder, and A. Dewulf, "Online Climate Change Polarization: Interactional Framing Analysis of Climate Change Blog Comments", Science Communication, vol. 42, pp. 454-480, 2020.
Categories: Blogtastic


George Monbiot Blog - Sat, 07/25/2020 - 17:00

The great majority of people do not want to return to business-as-usual after the pandemic, but our governments are determined to make us do so.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd July 2020

Out there somewhere, marked on no map but tantalisingly near, is a promised land called Normal, to which one day we can return. This is the magical geography we are taught by politicians, such as Boris Johnson with his “significant return to normality”. It is the story we tell ourselves, even if we contradict it with the very next thought.

There are practical reasons to believe that Normal is a fairyland, to which we can never return. The virus has not gone away, and is likely to keep recurring in waves. But let’s focus on another question. If such a land existed, would we want to live there?

The polls consistently suggest we would not. A survey by BritainThinks a fortnight ago showed that only 12% of people want life to be “exactly as it was before”. A poll at the end of June, commissioned by the nursery provider Bright Horizons, suggests that just 13% of people want to return to working as they did before the lockdown. A YouGov study in the same week revealed that only 6% of us want the same type of economy as we had before the pandemic. Another survey by the same pollsters in April showed only 9% of respondants wanted a return to “normal”. It’s rare to see such strong and consistent results on any major issue.

Of course, we would all like to leave the pandemic behind, with its devastating impacts on physical and mental health, its exacerbation of loneliness, the lack of schooling and the collapse in employment. But this doesn’t mean that we want to return to the bizarre and frightening world the government defines as normal. Ours is no land of lost content, but a place in which lethal crises were gathering long before the pandemic struck. Alongside our many political and economic dysfunctions, normality meant accelerating the strangest and deepest predicament humankind has ever confronted: the collapse of our life-support systems.

Last month, confined to our homes, we watched columns of smoke rising from the Arctic, where temperatures reached a highly abnormal 38°C. Such apocalyptic imagery is becoming the backdrop to our lives. We scroll past images of fire consuming Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia, inadvertently normalising them. In a brilliant essay at the beginning of this year, the author Mark O’Connell described this process as “the slow atrophying of our moral imaginations”. We are acclimatising ourselves to our existential crisis.

When business as usual resumes, so does the air pollution that kills more people every year than Covid-19 has yet done, and exacerbates the impacts of the virus. Climate breakdown and air pollution are two aspects of a wider dysbiosis. Dysbiosis means the unravelling of ecosystems. The term is used by doctors to describe the collapse of our gut biomes. But it is equally applicable to all living systems: rainforests, coral reefs, rivers, soil. They are unspooling at shocking speed, due to the cumulative impacts of normality, which means a perpetual expansion of consumption.

This month we learnt that $10 billion-worth of precious metals, such as gold and platinum, are dumped in landfill every year, embedded in tens of millions of tonnes of lesser materials, in the form of electronic waste. The world’s production of e-waste is rising by 4% a year. It is driven by another outlandish norm: planned obsolescence. Our appliances are designed to break down, and are deliberately engineered not to be repaired. This is one of the reasons why the average smartphone, containing precious materials extracted at great environmental cost, lasts for between two and three years, while the average desktop printer prints for a total of five hours and four minutes before it is discarded.

The living world, and the people it supports, cannot sustain this level of consumption, but normal life depends on its resumption. The compound, cascading effects of dysbiosis push us towards what some scientists warn could be global systemic collapse.

The polls on this issue are also clear: we do not want to return to this madness. A YouGov survey suggests that 8 out of 10 people want the government to prioritise health and well-being above economic growth during the pandemic, and 6 out of 10 would like it to stay that way when (if) the virus abates. A survey by Ipsos produces a similar result: 58% of British people want a green economic recovery, while 31% disagree. As in all such polls, Britain sits close to the bottom of the range. By and large, the poorer the nation, the greater the weight its people give to environmental issues. In China, in the same survey, the proportions are 80% and 16%, and in India, 81% and 13%. The more we consume, the more our moral imagination atrophies.

But the Westminster government is determined to shove us back into hypernormality, regardless of our wishes. This week, the environment secretary, George Eustice, signalled that he intends to rip up our system of environmental assessments. The government’s proposed free ports, in which tax and regulations are suspended, will not only exacerbate fraud and money laundering but also expose the surrounding wetlands and mudflats, and the rich wildlife they harbour, to destruction and pollution. The trade deal it intends to strike with the US could override parliamentary sovereignty and destroy our environmental standards, without public consent.

Just as there has never been a normal person, there has never been a normal time. Normality is a concept used to limit our moral imaginations. There is no normal to which we can return, or should wish to return. We live in abnormal times. They demand an abnormal response.

Categories: Blogtastic

Climate Sensitivity: A new assessment

Real Climate - Wed, 07/22/2020 - 14:00

Not small enough to ignore, nor big enough to despair.

There is a new review paper on climate sensitivity published today (Sherwood et al., 2020 (preprint) that is the most thorough and coherent picture of what we can infer about the sensitivity of climate to increasing CO2. The paper is exhaustive (and exhausting – coming in at 166 preprint pages!) and concludes that equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely between 2.3 and 4.5 K, and very likely to be between 2.0 and 5.7 K.

For those looking for some context on climate sensitivity – what it is, how can we constrain it from observations, and what observations are available, browse our previous discussions on the topic: On Sensitivity, Sensitive but Unclassified Part 1 + Part 2, A bit more sensitive, and Reflections on Ringberg among others. In this post, I’ll focus on what is new about this review.

Figure 1. The dependence between different constraints on the inferred sensitivity (S). Circles denote uncertain variables, while square denote (independent) evidence. The Bayesian process samples the uncertainties and the best sets of parameters that match all the evidence are then examined to see what they imply for S.

Climate Sensitivity is constrained by multiple sets of observations

The first thing to note about this study is that it attempts to include relevant information from three classes of constraints: processes observed in the real climate, the historical changes in climate since the 19th Century, and paleo-climate changes from the last ice age (20,000 years ago) and the Pliocene (3 million years ago) (see figure 1). Each constraint has (mostly independent) uncertainties, whether in the spatial pattern of sea surface temperatures, or quality of proxy temperature records, or aerosol impacts on clouds, but the impacts of these are assessed as part of the process.

Importantly, all the constraints are applied to a coherent, yet simple, energy balance model for the climate. This is based on the standard ‘temperature change = energy in – energy out + feedbacks’ formula that people have used before, but it explicitly tries to take into account issues like the spatial variations of temperature, non-temperature-related adjustments to the forcings, and the time/space variation in feedbacks. This leads to more parameters that need to be constrained, but the paper tries to do this with independent information. The alternative is to assume these factors don’t matter (i.e. set the parameters to a fixed number with no uncertainty), and then end up with mismatches across the different classes of constraints that are due to the structural inadequacy of the underlying model.

This is fundamentally a Bayesian approach, and there is inevitably some subjectivity when it comes to assessing the initial uncertainty in the parameters that are being sampled. However, because the subjective priors are explicit, they can be adjusted based on anyone else’s judgement and the consequences worked out. Attempts to avoid subjectivity (so-called ‘objective’ Bayesian approaches) end up with unjustifiable priors (things that no-one would have suggested before the calculation) whose mathematical properties are more important than their realism.

What sensitivity is being constrained?

There are a number of definitions of climate sensitivity in the literature, varying depending on what is included, and how easy they are to calculate and to apply. There isn’t one definition that is perfect for each application, and so there is always a need to translate between them. For the sake of practicality and to not preclude increases in scope in climate models, this paper focuses on the Effective Climate Sensitivity (Gregory et al, 2004) (based on the 150 yr response to an abrupt change to 4 times CO2), which is a little smaller than the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity in most climate models (Dunne et al, 2020). It can allow for a wider range of feedbacks than the standard Charney sensitivity, but limits the very long term feedbacks because of its focus on the first 150 years of the response.


Each class of constraint has it’s own issues. For the paleo-climate constraints, the uncertainties relate to the fidelity of the temperature reconstructions and knowledge of the forcings (greenhouse gas levels, ice sheet extent and height, etc). Subtler issues are whether ice sheet forcing has the same impact as greenhouse gas forcing per W/m2 (e.g. Stap et al., 2019), and whether there is an asymmetry between colder and warmer climates than today. For the transient constraints, there are questions about the difference between the pattern of sea surface temperature change over the last century compared to what we’ll see in long term, and the implications of aerosol forcing over the twentieth century which is still quite uncertain.

The process-based constraints, sometimes called emergent constraints, face challenges in enumerating all the relevant processes and finding enough variability in the observational records to assess their sensitivity. This is particularly hard for cloud related feedbacks – the most uncertain part of the sensitivity.

The paper goes through each of these issues in somewhat painful detail, highlighting as it does so areas that could do with further research.

Putting it together

There have been a few earlier papers that tried to blend these three classes of constraints, notably Annan and Hargreaves (2006), but doing so credibly while accounting for possible shared assumptions has been difficult. This paper explicitly looks at the sensitivity to the (subjective) priors, the quality of the evidence, and reasonable estimates of missing information. Notably, the paper also addresses how wrong the assumptions would need to be to have a notable impact on the final results.

Figure 2. PDFs of S in comparison with AR5. The Baseline PDF is shown in black, and its 66% range (2.6-3.9 K) in grey. Colored curves show PDFs from sensitivity tests which cover a range for S which could plausibly arise given reasonable alternative assumptions or interpretations of the evidence, summarized by the magenta line (2.3-4.5 K). The “likely” range from AR5 (1.5-4.5 K) is shown in cyan. Circles indicate 17th and 83rd percentile values.

Bottom line

The likely range of sensitivities is 2.3 to 4.5 K, which covers the basic uncertainty (“the Baseline” calculation) plus a number of tests of the robustness (illustrated in Figure 2). This is slightly narrower than the likely range given in IPCC AR4 (2.0-4.5 K), and quite a lot narrower than the range in AR5 (1.5-4.5 K). The wider range in AR5 was related to the lack (at that time) of quantitative explanations for why the constraints built on the historical observations were seemingly lower than those based on the other constraints. In the subsequent years, that mismatch has been resolved through taking account of the different spatial patterns of SST change and the (small) difference related to how aerosols impact the climate differently from greenhouse gases.

This range the paper comes up with is not a million miles from what most climate scientists have been saying for years. That a group of experts, trying their hardest to quantify expert judgement, comes up with something close to the expert consensus perhaps isn’t surprising. But, in making that quantification clear and replicable, people with other views (supported by evidence or not) now have the challenge of proving what difference their ideas would make when everything else is taken into account.

One further point. When this assessment started, it was before anyone had seen any of the CMIP6 model results:

As many have remarked, some (but not all) reputable models have come out with surprisingly high climate sensitivities, and in comparison with the likely range proposed here, about a dozen go beyond 4.5 K. Should they therefore be ruled out completely? No, or at least not yet. There may be special combinations of features that allow these models to match the diverse observations while having such a high sensitivity. While it may not be likely that they will do so, they should however be tested to see whether or not they do. That means that it is very important that these models are used for paleo-climate runs, or at least idealised versions of them, as well as the standard historical simulations.

In the meantime, it’s certainly worth stressing that the spread of sensitivities across the models is not itself a probability function. That the CMIP5 (and CMIP3) models all fell within the assessed range of climate sensitivity is probably best seen as a fortunate coincidence. That the CMIP6 range goes beyond the assessed range merely underscores that. Given too that CMIP6 is ongoing, metrics like the mean and spread of the climate sensitivities across the ensemble are not stable, and should not be used to bracket projections.

The last word?

I should be clear that although (I think) this is the best and most thorough assessment of climate sensitivity to date, I don’t think it is the last word on the subject. During the research on this paper, and the attempts to nail down each element of the uncertainty, there were many points where it was clear that more effort (with models or with data analysis) could be applied (see the paper for details). In particular, we could still do a better job of tying paleo-climate constraints to the other two classes. Additionally, new data will continue to impact the estimates – whether it’s improvements in proxy temperature databases, cloud property measurements, or each new year of historical change. New, more skillful, models will also help, perhaps reducing the structural uncertainty in some of the parameters (though there is no guarantee they will do so).

But this paper should serve as a benchmark for future improvements. As new data comes in, or better understandings of individual processes, the framework set up here can be updated and the consequences seen directly. Instead of claims at the end of papers such as “our results may have implications for constraints on climate sensitivity”, authors will be able to work them out directly; instead of cherry-picking one set of data to produce a conveniently low number, authors will be able to test their assumptions within the framework of all the other constraints – the code for doing so is here. Have at it!

  1. S. Sherwood, M.J. Webb, J.D. Annan, K.C. Armour, P.M. Forster, J.C. Hargreaves, G. Hegerl, S.A. Klein, K.D. Marvel, E.J. Rohling, M. Watanabe, T. Andrews, P. Braconnot, C.S. Bretherton, G.L. Foster, Z. Hausfather, A.S.V.D. Heydt, R. Knutti, T. Mauritsen, J.R. Norris, C. Proistosescu, M. Rugenstein, G.A. Schmidt, K.B. Tokarska, and M.D. Zelinka, "An assessment of Earth's climate sensitivity using multiple lines of evidence", Reviews of Geophysics, 2020.
  2. J.M. Gregory, "A new method for diagnosing radiative forcing and climate sensitivity", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 31, 2004.
  3. J.D. Annan, and J.C. Hargreaves, "Using multiple observationally-based constraints to estimate climate sensitivity", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 33, 2006.
Categories: Blogtastic

Contract Killers

George Monbiot Blog - Sun, 07/19/2020 - 07:15

Coronavirus deals worth billions of pounds have been awarded by the government to “unusual” companies, without advertising or competition.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th July 2020

This stinks. It stinks worse than any of the other carrion this government has buried. Every day for the past fortnight, I’ve been asking myself why this scandal isn’t all over the front pages. Under cover of the pandemic, the government has awarded contracts worth billions of pounds for equipment on which our lives depend, without competition or transparency. It has trampled its own rules, operated secretly and made incomprehensible and – in some cases – highly suspicious decisions.

Let’s begin with the latest case, unearthed by investigative journalists at the Guardian and openDemocracy. It involves a contract to test the effectiveness of the government’s coronavirus messaging, worth £840,000. It was issued by the Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove. The deal appears to have been struck on March 3, but the only written record in the public domain is a letter written on June 5, retrospectively offering the contract that had already been granted. There was no advertisement for the work, and no competition. No official notice of the award has yet been published. The deal appears to have been done with a handshake and a slap on the back.

But we do know who the contract went to. It’s a company called Public First, owned by a married couple, James Frayne and Rachel Wolf. Since 2000, James Frayne has worked on political campaigns with Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser. When Michael Gove was education secretary, he brought both Cummings and Frayne into his department. Cummings was Gove’s chief political adviser, while Frayne was his director of communications. At roughly the same time, in 2010, Gove’s Department awarded Rachel Wolf a £500,000 contract to promote his “free schools” obsession. Guess what? That didn’t go to competitive tender, either. Rachel Wolf co-wrote the Conservative party’s election manifesto in 2019.

In response to these revelations, the government claims it had to override the usual rules for public procurement because it was responding to an emergency. There are several problems with this claim. The first is that it had six weeks to prepare for the pandemic, before the deal was done. The second is that, of the four contracted services later listed on the government’s website, two were not for testing the government’s coronavirus messaging at all, but for “EU exit comms”: in other words, Brexit. The coronavirus work, according to this list, did not begin until May 27. The Cabinet Office now claims that when it said “EU exit”, it meant coronavirus. This seems an odd mistake to make. The third problem is that the government’s communications on the pandemic have been disastrous. Did it choose to ignore Public First’s “emergency” work, or was it of little value?

On Friday, the Good Law Project issued proceedings in the High Court against Michael Gove, alleging breaches of procurement law and apparent bias in the grant of the contract to his long-standing associates. It is crowdfunding the challenge.

But this, extraordinary as it is, is not the strangest of the cases the Good Law Project is taking on. Another involves a pest control company in Sussex called PestFix, which has listed net assets of only £18,000. On April 13, again without public advertisement or competition, the government awarded PestFix a £32 million contract to supply surgical gowns. PestFix is not a manufacturer, but an intermediary (its founder calls it a public health supply business): its role was to order the gowns from China. But, perhaps because of its lack of assets, the government gave it a deposit worth 75% of the value of the contract. The government’s own rules state that prepayments should be made only “in extremely limited and exceptional circumstances”, and even then must be “capped at 25% of the value of the contract”.

If the government had to provide the money upfront, why didn’t it order the gowns itself? And why, of all possible outsourcers, did it choose PestFix? In the two weeks before it awarded this contract, it was approached by 16,000 companies offering to supply protective equipment (PPE). Some of them had a long track record in manufacturing or supplying PPE, and had stocks that could be deployed immediately.

Again, the government relies on the emergency defence to justify its decision. But it issued its initial guidance on preventing infection among health and care workers on January 10. On February 14, it published specific guidance on the use of PPE. So why did it wait until April 13 to strike its “emergency” deal with PestFix? Moreover, it appears to have set the company no deadline for the delivery of the gowns. Astonishingly, even today only half of them appear to have reached the UK, and all those are still sitting in a warehouse in Daventry. On the government’s own admission, “none of the isolation suits delivered so far has been supplied into the NHS”. So much for taking urgent action in response to the emergency.

Again, the contract is surrounded by secrecy. Crucial sections, such as the price paid for the gowns, have been redacted. Bizarrely, the award notice initially stated that the contract was worth £108 million. But in responding to the lawsuit, the government claimed it had made a mistake: the real value is £32 million. Apparently, it struck “further contracts” with PestFix for other items of equipment. It has so far failed to reveal what these might be, or to publish the contracts. It is worth remembering that while all this was happening, frontline health and care workers were dying as a result of inadequate supplies of PPE.

There are plenty of other cases: such as the employment agency with net assets of £623, which was awarded an £18 million government contract to supply facemasks; the confectionery wholesaler given a £100 million contract to supply PPE; and the £250 million channelled through a “family office” registered in Mauritius, specialising in currency trading, offshore property and private equity, also to supply protective medical equipment. Altogether, billions of pounds’ worth of contracts appear to have been granted, often to surprising companies, without competition. I think we may reasonably ask what the hell is going on.

This is not just about value for money, important as that is. Transparent, competitive tendering is a crucial defence against cronyism and corruption. It is essential to integrity in public life and public trust in politics. But the government doesn’t seem to care. As the scandal over Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham shows, its strategy is to brazen out disgrace until public outrage subsides. We know it cheats and lies. It knows that we know, and it doesn’t care.

But these things matter. People die when the government gets them wrong. Our challenge is to discover how to make them count.

Categories: Blogtastic

Shellenberger’s op-ad

Real Climate - Thu, 07/09/2020 - 14:43

Guest commentary by Michael Tobis

This is a deep dive into the form and substance of Michael Shellenberger’s promotion for his new book “Apocalypse Never”. Shorter version? It should be read as a sales pitch to a certain demographic rather than a genuine apology.

Michael Shellenberger appears to have a talent for self-promotion. His book, provocatively entitled “Apocalypse Never” appears to be garnering considerable attention. What does he mean by that title? Does it mean we should do whatever we can to avoid an apocalypse? Does it mean that no apocalypse is possible in the foreseeable future? For those of us who haven’t yet read the book (now available on Kindle), Shellenberger provides an unusual article (at first posted on Forbes, then at Quillette and the front page of the Australian) which appears less a summary than a sales pitch, an “op-ad” as one Twitter wag put it.

It’s called “On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare”. In short, Shellenberger lands clearly on the naysayer soil. Not much to see, everyone. Cheer up, carry on, these are not the droids you’re looking for.


In support of this insouciance, Shellenberger offers twelve “facts few people know”. Most of the points are defensible to some extent, and most of them raise interesting topics. A main purpose of this article is to provide references to the relevant discussions. But in going through it, it’s worth keeping an eye on the rhetorical purposes of the items, which appear a bit scattershot, and to the rhetorical purpose of the list, which might appear rather obscure.

Clearly labeling the list “facts that few people know” implies that all these points unambiguously refute common beliefs that are widely. And the “apology for the climate scare” indicates further that these beliefs are widely held by a supposedly misguided community of “climate scared”. A defender of the list, Blair King suggests that “[Shellenberger] identified false talking points used repeatedly by alarmists to misinform the public and move debate away from one that is evidence-based to one driven by fear and misinformation”. That does seem to be a fair reading of the stated intent of the list, but it just doesn’t ring true as a whole.

Speaking as a verteran “climate scared” person, the items don’t seem especially familiar. It’s hard to imagine a conversation like this:“Gosh, climate change is an even bigger threat to species than habitat loss.”“I know, and the land area used for producing meat is increasing!”As Gerardo Ceballos said:

This is not a scientific paper. It is intended, I guess, to be an article for the general public. Unfortunately, it is neither. It does not have a logical structure that allows the reader to understand what he would like to address, aside from a very general and misleading idea that environmentalists and climate scientists have been alarmist in relation to climate change. He lists a series of eclectic environmental problems like the Sixth Mass Extinction, green energy, and climate disruption. And without any data nor any proof, he discredits the idea that those are human-caused, severe environmental problems. He just mentions loose ideas about why he is right and the rest of the scientists, environmentalists, and general public are wrong.

What causes the strange incoherence of these “facts few people know”? At the end of this review I’ll propose an answer. Meanwhile, I will consider several questions regarding each item:

  • VALIDITY Is the claim unambiguously true? Unambiguously false? Disputed?
  • RELEVANCE TO CLIMATE Is the claim directly relevant to climate concern/”climate scare” or is it more of interest to tangentially related environmental issues?
  • SALIENCE Is the contrary of the claim widely believed by environmental activists? Does widespread belief in the claim contribute materially to an excess of climate concern?
  • IMPLICATION What is the rhetorical purpose of the question?
  • REALITY To what extent is the rhetorical purpose justified?


1) Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”

In a literal sense this claim has its defenders. See “Earth is Not In the Middle of a Sixth Mass Extinction”. The article quotes Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin, who wrote to me in an email:.

Many of those making facile comparisons between the current situation and past mass extinctions don’t have a clue about the difference in the nature of the data, much less how truly awful the mass extinctions recorded in the marine fossil record actually were.

It is absolutely critical to recognize that I am NOT claiming that humans haven’t done great damage to marine and terrestrial [ecosystems], nor that many extinctions have not occurred and more will certainly occur in the near future. But I do think that as scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons…

I think that if we keep things up long enough, we’ll get to a mass extinction, but we’re not in a mass extinction yet, and I think that’s an optimistic discovery because that means we actually have time to avoid Armageddon

I leave it to the reader as to whether “not in a mass extinction yet” is reassuring. While there are several possible understandings of “mass extinction”, it’s generally agreed that we are indeed losing species at a rapid rate. Erwin is pointing out that the vast majority of life isn’t collapsing, that we aren’t collapsing into a nearly lifeless planet “Yet.” Will people reading Shellenberger’s quote get the message “we’re not in a mass extinction yet, … we actually have time to avoid Armageddon”? I venture that if they read about it in a book called “Apocalypse Never” they won’t. Is this related to something we might call “The Climate Scare”? Not yet. Climate is only a secondary feature of species loss so far, although there are plenty of signs of a climate impact in what’s left of natural ecosystems.

  • VALIDITY – Valid only provisionally and somewhat of a semantic quibble.
  • RELEVANCE TO CLIMATE – Speculative; if we don’t get a handle on climate change, climate change will make it worse.
  • SALIENCE – This one is genuinely scary, so it’s okay to be scared about it.
  • IMPLICATION – You are presumably meant to read this claim as “This talk about a sixth extinction is typical climate alarmist scaremongering”
  • REALITY – We are not literally in a mass extinction event yet but we are on the brink of one. It’s not really a “climate scare” topic but it’s related, and enormous. It seems utterly bizarre for someone claiming to speak “on behalf of environmentalists” to minimise it.

2) The Amazon is not “the lungs of the world”

It’s fair to say that “the Amazon is the lungs of the world” is an environmentalist talking point. It’s fair, I think, to say that some members of the public are afraid of killing enough trees that we run out of oxygen (never mind that lungs consume oxygen rather than producing it!). It turns out that what maintains the oxygen fraction in the atmosphere is a rather interesting question, but that there is no immediate risk of the oxygen going away. Here’s a paper (w/thanks to Chris Colose).

We have built up an enormous stockpile of the stuff. If we live long enough that the oxygen concentration changes appreciably, we will have survived the current century and many centuries to come. Is it a reason to NOT preserve the Amazon? Hardly. The Amazon is the repository for much of the land surface biodiversity. A better analogy would be that it’s more like our planetary gut than our planetary lungs. It would be stupid beyond belief to injure it, yet injure it we do. Does the fear of disappearing oxygen feed excessive “environmentalist” panic? Arguably so among the more excitable members of the general public sharing half-baked ideas on social media. But is it part of “The Climate Scare”? It’s a bit of a stretch. One could point out, though, that totally clearing the Amazon would have direct impacts on climate, according to several modeling studies, for instance.

  • VALIDITY – The claim is meaningless, so the counterclaim is meaningless
  • RELEVANCE – It’s a pretty muddled belief, but it could conceivably be seen as climate related.
  • SALIENCE – In fact there is baseless alarm about the Amazon’s ability to provide oxygen
  • IMPLICATION – “Don’t lose sleep about the Amazon; it’s not important.”
  • REALITY – The Amazon is the repository of an enormous amount of biodiversity that is at risk. Truly destroying it entirely would have climate impacts. Saving it is an important issue. But not because of oxygen!

3) Climate change is not making natural disasters worse

Roger Pielke Jr. enters the fray. This claim is obviously based on his position which Roger helpfully summarizes in a recent Twitter thread

First, what is a disaster?
A disaster refers to impacts
By themselves, eg, an earthquake or hurricane is not a disaster
For humans we typically measure impacts in lives lost or economic losses (obviously there are other metrics)
This is the definition of the IPCC

— Roger Pielke Jr. (@RogerPielkeJr) July 4, 2020

This is a very specific definition of “disaster” which Roger defends vigourously. One suspects that he does so precisely because the signal is buried in the noise in his definition. It’s a definition that could hardly have been better designed to avoid statistical significance!

I wrote more about that here. Take note: Pielke only claims “there is no statistical evidence that disasters are getting worse” while Shellenberger states “disasters are not getting worse”. A classic conflation of “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence”. In addition, Pielke’s claim only stands because the rising costs of disasters have been normalized by the rise in GDP. It is entirely unclear why this is the relevant metric. Shellenberger’s claim, despite Pielke’s defense of it, is not defensible by reference to Pielke.

  • VALIDITY: Shellenberger’s claim goes too far even based on Pielke’s significance-averse approach.
  • RELEVANCE: relevant to climate change impact
  • SALIENCE: Yes, people do worry about it a lot. Perhaps a bit too soon, but it’s not an unrealistic concern.
  • IMPLICATION: “No sign of a problem!”
  • REALITY: There are many signs that several types of severe events (notably heatwaves, drought impacts, and intense precipitation) are becoming more common and more severe.

4) Fires have declined 25 percent around the world since 2003

After the nitpicking of points 1 and 3, it’s very interesting to see the fuzziness here. It is true that total annual area burned worldwide has declined. But this is because grass fires have declined, because of increasing human appropriation of grasslands for agriculture. Forest fires, which are more ecologically damaging than grass fires, have increased.

While NASA’s new video does show regional upticks in certain parts of the world, scientists made clear that the total number of square kilometers burned globally each year has dropped roughly 25 percent since 2003. This has largely been due to population growth and development in grasslands and savannas, as well as to an increase in the use of machines to clear farmland. “There are really two separate trends,” said James Randerson, a scientist at the University of California, Irvine who worked on the new wildfire video. “Even as the global burned area number has declined because of what is happening in savannas, we are seeing a significant increase in the intensity and reach of fires in the western United States because of climate change.”

So, areas and intensity of forest fires have increased, and this claim is simply misdirection by mixing two phenomena, increasing forest fires and increasing human footprint on grasslands. The concern about increases in forest fires is valid.

  • VALIDITY: Misleading. Conflates two anthropogenic phenomena into one.
  • RELEVANCE: relevant to climate change impact
  • SALIENCE: Yes, people do worry about it a lot. Justifiably.
  • IMPLICATION: “See? Climate activists are deluded about wildfires.”
  • REALITY: Forest fires do appear to be increasing in frequency and severity. This is unsurprising as forests are exposed to warmer conditions that the ones for which they evolved, so are more prone to drying out.

5) The amount of land we use for meat—humankind’s biggest use of land—has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska

This turns out to be a defensible claim. But it’s not such a happy result. “this contraction is mostly in arid regions where scrubland was used for extensive low impact grazing. Some of the declines in these regions have been offset by expansions of grazing in tropical regions where the environmental destruction is immense e.g. in the Amazon. This “livestock revolution” has come with consequences associated with the spreading of fertilizers, and the draining of ecologically sensitive wetlands.” Regardless, as a careful examination of the vertical axis on the graph shows, on a percentage basis it’s small.

Finally, from personal experience I would point out that. at least in central Texas, much pasture land has been abandoned because it was ruined by overgrazing. I expect it’s similar elsewhere. Returning denuded limestone to “nature” is not that great of a gift.

  • VALIDITY: Marginal. Made out as an important trend when it’s really not.
  • RELEVANCE: No obvious relevance to climate.
  • SALIENCE: I don’t think this is a prominent concern among environmentalists at large.
  • IMPLICATION: ??? (It’s unclear what purported “alarmist idea” this counters.)
  • REALITY: The impacts of meat production are elsewhere.

6) The build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change, explain why there are more, and more dangerous, fires in Australia and California

It’s undisputed that fire suppression has built up fuel in many places, and that people have built housing in dangerously fire-prone locations. It’s also undisputed that the recent fires in Australia, as well as spectacular events in Russia in 2010 and Texas in 2011, occurred in conditions of literally unprecedented heat and drought. Of course, fires happen in hot dry years. But we’re seeing an obvious trend in such outliers. Things can have more than one cause.

  • VALIDITY: As stated, literally false. Things can have more than one contributing factor.
  • RELEVANCE: climate impact relevant
  • SALIENCE: People worry about this, and they should
  • IMPLICATION: “Hot weather doesn’t make forests burn because fire suppression makes forest burn, so don’t worry about climate change!”
  • REALITY: Unsurprisingly, forests are more likely to dry out and burn when it’s hotter.

7) Carbon emissions are declining in most rich nations and have been declining in Britain, Germany, and France since the mid-1970s

This is true. In some countries it is quite substantial. It has two primary causes: 1) Recent declines in coal consumption, mostly replaced by natural gas. Since climate stability is only achieved at net zero emissions, investment in gas infrastructure is a mixed blessing. 2) Much industrial activity moving to Asia, especially China. This is just moving the problem, not solving it. It’s “global warming”, not “national warming”. If you look at the global trajectory rather than that of individual countries, emissions continue to burgeon. Even the recent pandemic related events appear so far to have been very temporary. If you compare what is happening now to the path required to limit warming to any particular target, especially 2ºC or better, it’s very hard to take this little bit of good news with too much jubilation.

Annual CO2 emissions by region

Sam Bliss points out that no rich country is reducing emissions fast enough to keep global warming under 2ºC — or even planning to.

No rich country is reducing emissions fast enough to keep global warming under 2C — or even planning to. The UK and Sweden have committed to reduction pathways that entail twice their fair share of carbon emissions, according to @KevinClimate et al.

— Sam Bliss (@ii_sambliss) July 2, 2020

  • VALIDITY: True, but something of a cherry pick
  • RELEVANCE: climate relevant, but the narrow claim is nowhere near as important as is implied
  • SALIENCE: I don’t know that people are worried about small declines in emissions records of particular countries. People are certainly worried about global totals, though.
  • IMPLICATION: “We’re already fixing the problem! Relax!”
  • REALITY: We are still very far from fixing the problem, and the hard-won but modest progress in a few wealthy countries is not reassuring.

8) “The Netherlands became rich, not poor while adapting to life below sea level”

First, we should probably neglect point 8 altogether, since it is commonly known that the Dutch have done well over the centuries, and that they have won back a fair piece of land from their continental shelf. So it doesn’t qualify as something “few people know”. It’s sloppy to include it on the list.

Clearly the implication that “alarmists say the Dutch are not wealthy!” is just nonsense. What about “alarmists say the Dutch are drowning”? I’ve not heard that one either. So logically speaking we can ignore this point. Is this merely silly? Can Shellenberger be claiming that bad news is good news? That we should embrace climate change because it will build character? Is this the quality of argument that we’re facing?

Homeowners in Ocean County, NJ are early recipients of the stimulus to creativity and economic activity of sea level rise, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. USGS

Let’s bend over backwards to consider the matter. It appears that the point is that at least one society has adapted to life below sea level; so we all can do that. But does that really mean that the Dutch are prepared to adapt to sea level rise of meters? There are two approaches to thinking about the Dutch situation in the future. Some are bravely advocating a “make lemonade” approach, inclining toward the insouciant “disasters are business opportunities” framing that Shellenberger implies. But others which look in deeper detail are more sobering:

Of course, dikes are being raised, and rivers given some room to overflow occasionally, but will that be enough? And more importantly: how long will it last? Sea levels have only just started to rise, and it may be going faster than we had initially thought. The big question is: will the Netherlands as we know it survive what’s coming?

In order to keep the seawater at bay, the dikes will need to be raised. As a result, the polders behind them will become relatively deeper, making them more vulnerable and more expensive to maintain. These higher dikes are also a problem in themselves: they prevent natural silting, which means our delta is unable to grow along with the advancing sea.

The experts share one concern: the Netherlands has no Plan B for a scenario in which sea levels rise faster than are accounted for in the Delta Programme. At the same time, there is no proper public debate about this issue, despite the urgent need for one. Not sometime in the future, but right now – because we need to make some important choices today. Especially if you consider how long it takes to develop and implement plans.

Reducing CO<sub>2</sub> emissions and reinforcing dikes is only half the story. The other stark reality is that even these measures combined may prove insufficient in the long term to preserve the lower-lying parts of our country. The polder model – in its literal rather than political sense – has its limits, some physical and some more subjective. The physical limits are based on hard science: how quickly will sea levels rise – and how much can we actually handle? The subjective limits are a question of taste: what kind of country do we want to live in (while we still have time to decide)?

Can we adapt to sea level rise? The implication of this point is that we can adapt like the Dutch. But can the Dutch, who are the world’s experts on managing land below sea level adapt? Only, it appears, within limits.

  • VALIDITY: Undisputed. Indeed, hard to imagine why this qualifies as a “fact few people know”!
  • RELEVANCE: relates indirectly to climate impacts
  • SALIENCE: People do worry about sea level rise, and they should
  • IMPLICATION: “Sea level rise is harmless since humans can rise to the occasion of great challenges.”
  • REALITY: Even the Dutch, wealthy and experienced in managing coastal flooding, are very worried.

9) We produce 25 percent more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter

This is a bit controversial, but I think Shelleberger is correct. Large scale agriculture can adapt to changing conditions. Crop failures in one place or another may become more frequent as climate becomes less predictable and in some ways more severe, but global production will probably remain adequate for a long time, provided the current economic and trade regime remains healthy. A survey article is here. The impacts of climate change on food supply, except on the poorest, is expected to be relatively modest, compared to other scenario variables:

Finally, all quantitative assessments we reviewed show that the first decades of the 21st century are expected to see low impacts of climate change, but also lower overall incomes and still a higher dependence on agriculture. During these first decades, the biophysical changes as such will be less pronounced but climate change will affect those particularly adversely that are still more dependent on agriculture and have lower overall incomes to cope with the impacts of climate change. By contrast, the second half of the century is expected to bring more severe biophysical impacts but also a greater ability to cope with them. The underlying assumption is that the general transition in the income formation away from agriculture toward nonagriculture will be successful.

How strong the impacts of climate change will be felt over all decades will crucially depend on the future policy environment for the poor. Freer trade can help to improve access to international supplies; investments in transportation and communication infrastructure will help provide secure and timely local deliveries; irrigation, a promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, and continued technological progress can play a crucial role in providing steady local and international supplies under climate change.

This said, climate change will have an enormous impact on traditional food-gathering and subsistence agriculture. Traditional methods will fail. Greenland is a harbinger. If traditional cultures and folkways are valuable, their food gathering and subsistence methods are central. These are being lost.

  • VALIDITY: Plausible
  • RELEVANCE: relevant to climate change
  • SALIENCE: I think there is a strong case that there’s too much public alarm on the climate- food security axis.
  • IMPLICATION: “Food is not a big climate issue!”
  • REALITY: If the international economic order holds together, enough nutrients to feed everyone will be produced in the foreseeable future. But climate change impacts on traditional cultures are already severe and will likely eventually be overwhelming. Distributional issues may leave people hungry even as enough food is produced in aggregate.

10) Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals are bigger threats to species than climate change

It’s not clear how to formally evaluate this claim. It is surely true of some species and not of others. Coral reef species, for example, are under direct threat from ocean acidification and local warming events. Habitat loss can certainly be exacerbated by climate change. Here, the recent example of Australian fires is instructive. These phenomena can’t be directly separated. Climate change causes habitat loss.

The main way in which climate stress affects natural species is through habitat loss via climate niche moves and disappearance. It isn’t at all clear that the comparison between habitat loss and climate stress, even if it were possible, would be very informative. You can’t really protect wildlife without protecting or creating stable habitat. Under rapid climate change that becomes impossible.

  • VALIDITY: The assertion is overly broad and probably untestable.
  • RELEVANCE: climate relevant
  • SALIENCE: People do worry about habitat and people do worry about climate; sometimes they get them confused, and sometimes they are related. It’s not clear concerns are excessive
  • IMPLICATION: “Climate change is not a problem for wildlife!”
  • REALITY: Climate change is a major driver of habitat loss, so if you care about habitat, you should care about climate policy.

11) Wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels

This conflates several issues.

  1. Wood-burning ovens and grills in wealthy countries are a carbon neutral luxury of no great biogeochemical importance. There is no controversy on this matter that I know of.
  2. Biofuels are carbon neutral. Although it is a relatively minor source of energy, extracting energy from burning wood waste is better than simply letting the waste decay, producing the same CO2 without capturing the energy. However, mis-designed carbon credit systems in Europe have been encouraging growing trees specifically for the purpose of burning them. While carbon-neutral in the long run, this use produces carbon in the short run and consumes it on a longer time scale, front-loading emissions. It is a carbon-overshoot strategy, and there’s a strong case to be made that given our present trajectory toward exceeding global warming targets, it’s a bad idea. However, on this matter, one would tend to see the most “climate alarmed” as aligned with Shellenberger, not opposed, so it doesn’t support his case.
  3. Wood-burning for home cooking in less developed countries is a real health issue. This is certainly true, but no important group is advocating household wood fuel as a mainstay for large populations that I know about. It’s possible to imagine an innumerate anti-technology Luddite advocating returning to wood-burning stoves, but it’s difficult to imagine that gaining much purchase, insofar as forests are greatly valued, if not even overvalued, by climate activists. So on these points, Shellenberger is probably better aligned with “climate activists” than against them.
  • VALIDITY: The claim is true, especially insofar as low-technology wood-burning is concerned.
  • RELEVANCE: Not first order climate relevant. Nobody is proposing replacing fossil fuels with wood burning on a global scale.
  • SALIENCE: The biofuel issue is a real controversy and second order relevant to the climate problem, but modern biofuel plants not a major health concern, certainly compared to coal plants. The use of wood-burning in households is a real health issue, but not climate relevant. Shellenberger is probably better aligned here with “climate activists” than against them.
  • IMPLICATION: Hard to know. Maybe “the environmental crazies want to take away your furnace and put a nasty sooty wood-burning hearth in your kitchen.”
  • REALITY: Poor wood burning practice in households is indeed unhealthy, but carbon neutral. The issue of biomass burning is complex; some uses are better than others. Growing wood specifically for fuel has deleterious impacts on the carbon trajectory, and is probably not a great idea, even though the strategy is basically long-term carbon neutral.

12) Preventing future pandemics requires more not less “industrial” agriculture

There seems to be a case being made that CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are less dangerous than pastures on this account. My initial investigations on the subject turned up a lot of evidence against Shellenberger’s claim.

I finally turned up what must be Shellenberger’s source. This piece is attributed to the young Alex Smith – Alex joined Breakthrough as a research analyst in the food and agriculture program in 2019 after completing a dual MA/MSc in International and World History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. In his masters, Alex studied and wrote about American foreign policy, French colonialism, and environmental history.  In short, Mr Smith doesn’t seem to have much formal knowledge about pandemics or agriculture. He concludes:

With our global population set to increase by close to 3 billion by 2050, we must strive to construct a world that can provide food, shelter, and livelihoods to all 10 billion people, while reducing risk of pandemics akin to what we see today. Simply, the only way forward is forward. We must continue to develop agricultural innovations that can allow for increased intensification, and we must give these innovations global reach. It does not work to just intensify agricultural production in developed countries, given the dual role of land-use change and food insecurity. To combat the main drivers of zoonotic diseases, we must sustainably intensify our food system, not pine for a romanticized and inefficient production system that brings people and wild animals in closer contact.

Frankly, this reminds me of the Monty Python sketch that teaches you how to play the flute. Smith dismisses the obvious solution in his second paragraph:

But these claims offer no explicit argument for how a different form of agriculture — outside of calls to completely eliminate meat consumption — would reduce risk, and they often conflate intensive animal agriculture with intensive agriculture writ large.

I myself have indeed given up on animal products almost altogether (I do have a weakness for butter-based desserts at cafés that I occasionally indulge) so I can’t resist noting this dodge. I don’t see any reason meat can’t go back to being an occasional luxury as it was through most of human history. But this is hardly the place for that discussion. To the point, Shellenberger seems to be putting up basically a blog post by a young man with a history degree against the entire field of epidemiology, and declaring “a fact” on that basis. I’d call that a stretch.

  • VALIDITY: The claim is very weakly supported and probably wrong.
  • RELEVANCE: No obvious climate relevance
  • SALIENCE: I think people do, sensibly, worry about the way meat is produced
  • IMPLICATION: “Coop up animals in meat factories! It’s good for you and they don’t mind much.”
  • REALITY: Er, no.


It’s very hard to imagine a significant community of people adamantly holding to the contrary of Shellenberger’s points. They really aren’t core to any particular group.So what is he up to, if it’s more than just selling a book?

Is this the problem, then? Half-truths, incoherent cases, sound-good arguments that in total don't add up to a coherent case against environmentalism except seemingly on 4-minute between-commercial segments on conservative talk radio but not in thought-out rational discourse?

— David Appell (@davidappell) July 2, 2020

I think David hits the nail on the head. It’s a pitch to denialism, not to moderation. But why is is so strangely constructed, so uncompelling to some of us, and yet apparently convincing to others? There’s a provocatively titled article at The Forward that has an answer:

The fuel for this fire comes from something that anthropologists call the myth of outgroup homogeneity. We tend to believe everyone in our tribe is nuanced and diverse, while all the members of that tribe over there are uniform and zombie-like. This is how New York thinks of New Jersey, Lakers fans think of Clippers fans, Mac users think of PC users, and MSNBC viewers think of Fox News viewers. The outgroup homogeneity effect makes it easier to blame a whole side for their crazy fringe while barely acknowledging your own. You can march under a big dumb banner, saying you’re from the smart, nuanced part of your coalition, while believing everyone on the other side has no more profound beliefs than their big, dumb banner.

Shellenberger’s weird list makes no sense at all. It certainly doesn’t bear up well under close inspection. But it makes some sense to his readers, only because they perceive the world of the climate concerned as “uniform and zombie-like”. Every single point of contention he raises is viewed through that lens first.

Is Shellenberger really even a “former environmentalist”? Has he ever actually advocated a “climate scare”? Does he have anything to apologise for? The evidence for his (oddly un-contrite) apostasy is thin. His list, baffling to those of us it is meant to accuse, holds together as an example of “outgroup homogeneity”. Shellenberger’s capacity to frame a list this way depends on a capacity to grossly oversimplify his “climate scare” opposition. His baffling caricature of his opposition would indicate that he never really was part of a “climate scare” in the first place!
The article, remember, is entitled “On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare”. I suggest Shellenberger in innocent on that score. He may however owe us a different apology.

Categories: Blogtastic

Something Wicked This Way Comes

George Monbiot Blog - Tue, 07/07/2020 - 05:01

Are Trump and Johnson paving the way for fascism, or for something different, but just as bad?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd July 2020

The anger that should be directed at billionaires is instead directed by them. Facing inequality and exclusion, poor wages and insecure jobs, people are persuaded by the newspapers billionaires own and the parties they fund to unleash their fury on immigrants, Muslims, the EU and other “alien” forces.

From the White House, his Manhattan tower and his Florida resort, Donald Trump tweets furiously against “elites”. Dominic Cummings hones the same message as he moves between his mansion in Islington, with its library and tapestry room and his family estate in Durham. Clearly, they don’t mean political or economic elites. They mean intellectuals: the students, teachers, professors and independent thinkers who oppose their policies. Anti-intellectualism is a resurgent force in politics.

Privileged grievance spills from the pages of the newspapers. Opinion writers for the Telegraph and the Spectator insist they are oppressed by a woke mafia, by the rise of Black Lives Matter and other cultural shifts. From their national newspaper columns and slots on the Today programme, they thunder that they have been silenced. The president of the United States portrays himself as a martyred hero, the victim of oppressive liberalism. This politics of resentment is taken up by the footsoldiers of the nascent far right on both sides of the Atlantic.

Myths of national greatness and decline abound. Make America Great Again and Take Back Control propose a glorious homecoming to an imagined golden age. Conservatives and Republicans invoke a rich mythology of family life and patriarchal values. Large numbers of people in the United Kingdom regret the loss of empire.

Extravagant buffoons, building their power base through the visual media, displace the wooden technocrats who once dominated political life. Debate gives way to symbols, slogans and sensation. Political parties that once tolerated a degree of pluralism succumb to cults of personality.

Politicians and political advisers behave with impunity. During the impeachment hearings, Donald Trump’s lawyer argued, in effect, that the president is the nation, and his interests are inseparable from the national interest. Dominic Cummings gets away with blatant breaches of the lockdown. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, with his attempted special deal for a property developer who then gave money to the Conservative Party. With every unpunished outrage against integrity in public life, trust in the system corrodes. The ideal of democracy as a shared civic project gives way to a politics of dominance and submission.

Political structures still stand, but they are hollowed out, as power migrates into unaccountable, undemocratic spheres: Conservative fundraising dinners, US political action committees, offshore trade tribunals, tax havens and secrecy regimes. The bodies supposed to hold power to account, such as the Electoral Commission and the BBC, are attacked, disciplined and cowed. Politicians and newspapers launch lurid attacks against Parliament, the judiciary and the civil service.

Political lying becomes so rife that voters lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Conspiracy theories proliferate, distracting attention from the real ways in which our rights and freedoms are eroded. Politicians create chaos, such as Trump’s government shutdowns and the no-deal Brexit Boris Johnson seems to be engineering, then position themselves as our saviours in troubled times.

Donald Trump shamelessly endorses nativism and white supremacy. Powerful politicians, like the congressman Steve King, talk of defending “western civilisation” against “subjugation” by its “enemies”. Minorities are disenfranchised. Immigrants are herded into detention centres.

Do these circumstances sound familiar? Do they pluck a deep, resonant chord of apprehension? They should. All these phenomena were preconditions for – or facilitators of – the rise of European fascism during the first half of the 20th Century. I find myself asking a question I thought we would never have to ask again. Is the resurgence of fascism a real prospect, on either side of the Atlantic?

Fascism is a slippery, protean thing. As an ideology, it’s almost impossible to pin down: it has always been opportunistic and confused. It is easier to define as a political method. While its stated aims may vary wildly, the means by which it has sought to grab and build power are broadly consistent. But I think it’s fair to say that though the new politics have some strong similarities to fascism, they are not the same thing. They will develop in different ways and go by different names.

Trump’s politics and Johnson’s have some characteristics that were peculiar to fascism, such as their constant excitation and mobilisation of their base through polarisation, their culture wars, their promiscuous lying, their fabrication of enemies and their rhetoric of betrayal. But there are crucial differences. Far from valorising and courting young people, they appeal mostly to older voters. Neither relies on paramilitary terror, though Trump now tweets support for armed activists occupying state buildings and threatening peaceful protesters. It is not hard to see some American militias mutating into paramilitary enforcers if he wins a second term, or, for that matter, if he loses. Fortunately, we can see no such thing developing in the UK. Neither government seems interested in using warfare as a political tool.

Trump and Johnson preach scarcely-regulated individualism: almost the opposite of the fascist doctrine of total subordination to the state. (Though in reality, both have sought to curtail the freedoms of outgroups). Last century’s fascism thrived on economic collapse and mass unemployment. We are nowhere near the conditions of the Great Depression, though both countries now face a major slump in which millions could lose their jobs and homes.

Not all the differences are reassuring. Micro-targeting on social media, peer-to-peer texting and now the possibility of deepfake videos allow today’s politicians to confuse and misdirect people, to bombard us with lies and conspiracy theories, to destroy trust and create alternative realities more quickly and effectively than any tools 20th-century dictators had at their disposal. In the EU referendum campaign, in the 2016 US election and in the campaign that brought Jair Bolsonaro to power in Brazil, we see the roots of a new form of political indoctrination and authoritarianism, without clear precedents.

It is hard to predict how this might evolve. It’s unlikely to lead to thousands of helmeted stormtroopers assembling in public squares, not least because the new technologies render such crude methods unnecessary in gaining social control. As Trump seeks re-election, and Johnson prepares us for a likely no deal, we can expect them to use these tools in ways that Hitler and Mussolini could only have dreamt of. Their manipulations will expose long-standing failures in our political systems, that successive governments have done nothing to address.

Though it has characteristics in common, this isn’t fascism. It is something else, something we have not yet named. But we should fear it and resist it as if it were.

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Unforced Variations: July 2020

Real Climate - Thu, 07/02/2020 - 02:01

This month’s open thread for climate science topics.

Categories: Blogtastic

Road to Perdition

George Monbiot Blog - Fri, 06/26/2020 - 13:54

How did wildlife groups start collaborating in the destruction of nature?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th June 2020

Out of this horror comes hope. In the backwash of the pandemic’s first wave, we see the shingled ruins of the old economy, and the chance to construct a new one. As we rebuild our economic life, we should do it on green principles, averting a crisis many times greater than the coronavirus: climate breakdown and the collapse of our life-support systems.

This means no more fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Even existing infrastructure, according to climate scientists, could push us past crucial thresholds. It means an end to megaprojects whose main purpose is enriching construction companies.

Perhaps the definitive example of such projects in the UK is the Oxford – Cambridge Arc. It’s a plan to build a conurbation twice the size of Birmingham (1 million homes) from Oxford to Cambridge. This is far beyond the region’s housing demand. Its purpose, government agencies admit, is not to meet the need for homes, but “to maximise [the area’s] economic potential”.

Originally, the Arc was to be built around an Expressway: a new motorway linking the two cities. After a furious public backlash, the Expressway, according to Highways England (the government agency promoting the project), is now “paused” while it explores “other potential road projects”. In either case, there would be a massive expansion of the road network and the traffic it carries, though air pollution in the region already breaks legal limits. The new housing would mean a huge increase in water use. Already rivers in this area are running dry, as demand exceeds supply.

Even before the pandemic struck, this megalomaniac scheme was in trouble, due to the strength of public opposition. The pandemic, some of us assumed, would be the death blow. Why would the government spend money on this grandiose nonsense, when there are so many other priorities?

But last week, a new campaign came to the rescue. It has rebranded the project “Nature’s Arc”. Apparently, with some adjustments, this massive exercise in concrete pouring “could show how development can restore nature, rather than destroy it”. Building up to a million homes, the new PR blitz tells us, is “the perfect opportunity to invest in nature, improve people’s lives and realise the green recovery.” There’s no mention of traffic, no mention of the Arc’s contribution to air pollution, climate breakdown, resource consumption or water use. It’s suffused with the kind of corporate-Maoist exhortations you see in brochures for new estates: “Nature’s Arc: Be part of it”.

It’s one of the most outrageous exercises in greenwashing I’ve ever seen. But I haven’t told you the worst of it. This guff was not published by the government or the housebuilding companies. It was published by a consortium of wildlife groups: the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the region’s two Wildlife Trusts. All of them once fought the Arc and its associated developments. The two Wildlife Trusts once mounted a legal challenge to the Expressway. This looks to me like a switch from opposition to collaboration.

There’s a remarkable, distressing similarity between their campaign and Highways England’s own PR materials. The wildlife groups use the same dismal, instrumental language. They call nature “natural capital”. They rebrand nature reserves and woodlands as “green infrastructure”. They uncritically deploy one of the most controversial concepts in development planning: “net gain”. This is the principle that established wildlife habitats destroyed by a project should be replaced by a greater area of new habitat. It has been used repeatedly as an excuse to destroy ancient and precious wild places, replacing them with uniform saplings in plastic guards. Government newspeak appears to have framed their language and shaped their thinking.

Both the Wildlife Trusts in this consortium, in response to my questions, tell me they have applied for funds from Highways England, for other projects. The boundaries blur and the objectives mesh, until it seems hard to tell the difference between protectors and destroyers. But I don’t think this is about money. I think it’s about power.

The four groups all tell me that, despite the statements in their press materials, they still oppose the housing target. They say they want to lay down green principles for construction in the Arc and ensure it “respects environmental limits”. But by rebranding the Arc as the potential saviour of nature, I believe they are playing straight into the government’s hands.

To make matters worse, none of them consulted the local campaign groups who have been leading the fight against the Oxford – Cambridge Arc. Deborah Lovatt of the Buckinghamshire Expressway Action Group tells me she had no idea Nature’s Arc was coming. “When I saw that they were describing this scale of destruction as ‘a perfect opportunity’, I felt sick.” They have “completely undermined community campaigns”. This is ironic, as one of the many complaints against the government’s proposal is the lack of public consultation.

The bigger and more established an organisation becomes, the more timid and conformist it seems to get, until it’s almost indistinguishable from the interests it should be confronting. In this age of environmental crisis and collapse, of government lies and corporate power, we need our nature defenders to rise like lions after slumber. Instead, they queue at the abattoir gate like sedated lambs.

As commercial propaganda seeps into every corner of public life, trust collapses. No one knows what or whom to believe. We need campaigning groups that stand on principle, mobilise their members, use their own words and think their own thoughts. Instead, they swing in the winds of power.

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