Keeping the Poor in the Dark to save the Climate

I was asked on Twitter to comment on this post on “Confessions of a Former Climate Change Denialist”

It is a curious post. The author begins by making some valid concerns about the relative risks of climate change relative to other threats such as poverty:

Being a biology and ecology geek in high school, my mind nurtured environmental concerns, especially in my birth country, Iran, where air and environment pollution, uncontrolled hunting, deforestation and desert formation are rampant. When I first heard about climate change through media (nothing had been taught in school), I couldn’t help but see it as a distraction from more immediate issues — poverty, childhood mortality, wars and conflicts, pollution, and so on. It bothered me to think of countries coming together and people marching in the streets over such a hypothetical long-term effect while children die of preventable causes.

However, he does not repudiate or refute any of these moral concerns, but rather seems to reject them purely on the grounds that questioning the Climate Apocalypse hypothesis would assume a conspiracy- and then he would feel aligned with 9-11 Truthers or those who believe the moon landing was a hoax.

This is surely a non-sequitor- you can believe climate change is a risk without feeling it has to trump all other social and environmental concerns, surely? This is not climate change “denial” at all, and it troubles me that the author does not overcome the moral issues on moral grounds.

The argument that climate change may not be as great a concern as addressing poverty and human development is best made by Bjorn Lomborg, recently for example here:

While global warming will be a problem, much of the rhetoric is wildly exaggerated – like when UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon calls it “an existential challenge for the whole human race.” The IPCC finds that the total cost of climate change by 2070 is between 0.2pc and 2pc of GDP. While this is definitely a problem, it is equivalent to less than one year of recession over the next 60 years.

Global warming pales when compared to many other global problems. While the WHO estimates 250,000 annual deaths from global warming in 30 years, 4.3 million die right now each year from indoor air pollution, 800 million are starving, and 2.5 billion live in poverty and lack clean water and sanitation.

Moreover, no matter how bad you think global warming may be in the future, the wrong policies will be worse:

Climate policies can easily cost much more than the global warming damage will – while helping very little. The German solar adventure, which has cost taxpayers more than $130 billion, will at the end of the century just postpone global warming by a trivial 37 hours.

Robert Bryce also adresses the issue of what he calls “the most revolting tenet of the Left’s climate-change strategy: their desire to keep the poor in the dark.”

a coalition of U.S. environmental groups has convinced the Obama administration that it should oppose the financing of coal-fired power plants in developing countries out of concern for climate change. And the Obama administration has been doing just that. In July 2013, the Export-Import Bank, an export-credit agency backed by the U.S. government, voted to halt financing for the Thai Binh 2 power plant, a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired facility in northern Vietnam. At about the same time, the World Bank declared that it would limit financing of coal-fired-generation projects to “rare circumstances.”

For the developing world, where many millions have not yet had access to any kind of regular electricity, coal is by far the cheapest and quickest option, which means in reality the only option for now. The poor are being denied access to energy as a direct result of first-world, wealthy environmentalist concerns about the rather abstract and nebulous impacts of “climate change” at some unknown point a generation or two into the future.

This issue was also the subject of a recent exchange between Matt Ridley and Mark Lynas. Ridley kicked off with a post entitled “Greens Take the Low Moral Ground” :

the cost of climate policies is already falling most heavily on today’s poor. Subsidies for renewable energy have raised costs of heating and transport disproportionately for the poor. Subsidies for biofuels have raised food prices by diverting food into fuel, tipping millions into malnutrition and killing about 190,000 people a year. The refusal of many rich countries to fund aid for coal-fired electricity in Africa and Asia rather than renewable projects (and in passing I declare a financial interest in coal mining) leaves more than a billion people without access to electricity and contributes to 3.5 million deaths a year from indoor air pollution caused by cooking over open fires of wood and dung.

Greens think these harms are a price worth paying to stop the warming. They want (other) people to bear such sacrifices today so that the people of 2100, who will be up to seven times as rich, do not have to face the prospect of living in a world that is perhaps 0.8 – 1.2 degrees warmer. And this is the moral high ground?

Lynas’ response correctly identifies the dilemma- that poor climate policies will hurt the poor- but focuses on what he calls Ridley’s “climate change denial”:

This is a familiar paradox, and one that has been pointed out by many people (e.g. Breakthrough Institute and Roger Pielke Jnr. There is no doubt that global energy production is going to have to double, triple or even quadruple this century in order to allow for economic development and poverty eradication worldwide. This is one of the reasons I have supported nuclear power, which along with renewables can offset the use of coal and other fossil fuels in producing this much-needed increase in energy supplies….

What bugs me however is that Ridley resolves this paradox instead by denying the gravity of global warming.

He then agreed to publish on his blog this response from Ridley:

Does Mark think dangerous warming is inevitable? I doubt it. Does he think he can rule out non-dangerous warming? I hope not. It would require cherry-picking to achieve that. The IPCC gives a range of outcomes from harmless to harmful. I think the lower end of the range is more plausible. Mark thinks the higher end is more plausible. But we are both within the range of outcomes. How does that make me a “denier”?

Whatever about the technical details of climate sensitivity etc, Lynas failed to address the issue that current climate policies- driven by climate alarmism and fear-mongering- are ineffective in terms of reducing CO2 emissions, while clearly also hurting the poor now. And yes, despite Lynas’ objections, these do of course include biofuels which are indeed clearly a result of renewables quotas on the back of climate policies, (and some environmental NGOs some do still support biofuels) locking in the state subsidies we still have today.

Of course Lynas should be applauded for his stance on nuclear and GMOs, yet he seems unwilling to accept that many of the same voices to claim the sky is falling on climate also oppose GMOs and nuclear power- and that these are all ways of keeping the poor poor while hindering actions that could also reduce CO2.

Lynas was gracious enough to apologise for the slur of “denier” against Ridley:

Yes, I withdraw that accusation, with apologies. It is clear from this response that he is a ‘lukewarmer’ – I checked with him and he is OK with that particular moniker.

Mark

Mark should have known better- he must realise that Matt Ridley has never “denied” CO2 as a warming gas or its likely contribution to recent (slight) warming- he merely takes issue with the more alarmist speculations of climate catastrophe.

But scroll further down the comments though and you will see that the climate crazies have come out in force:

I think it is high time that we take global warming to be what it truly is, an existential threat that, if left un-mitigated in the very immediate future, will lead to the deaths of over 1 billion human beings over the next 5 decades.

In this circumstance, likely an understatement if current groundwater depletion trends continue, then those among us who ARE climate deniers are WORSE than holocaust deniers, by several magnitudes of order. (being that the deaths may yet be avoided!)

People are already dying- of poverty. It is pointed out of course that it is the poor who will be most at risk from climate change- yes, indeed they will- because they are poor.

Addressing poverty now, bringing people out of poverty right now, in the fastest way possible, is the best way to help the environment. Once out of the drudgery of subsistence agriculture, people have more security and thus tend to reduce their birth rates, and have more options in terms of efficient use of resources. As they get richer still, some of them may even become environmentalists themselves, a luxury only the well-off can afford. As the whole world gets richer, the options for technological innovation to help decarbonisation efforts will increase.

For many environmentalists, this is not the plan at all. Underpinned by a legacy of misanthropy and pseudo-religious Nature worship, innovation is rejected in favour of moralistic powerdown programs that apply only to the poor and not to themselves. There is no politically or ethically feasible way forward that does not first address poverty, and climate policies that do not prioritise this should be rejected. Until Greens understand and accept this, they will languish in the moral basement.

Big Ag and Small Farms- Why we need both

Colin Tudge has an article for last week’s Oxford Real Farming conference. Unfortunately, he provides little evidence for many of his assertions, repeats many long-debunked myths and seems intent on promoting a black-and-white world or Goodies (small farms) vs Baddies (Big Ag and GMOs) to have a go at his pet hate of “neo-liberalism”.

Tudge begins:

The sad state of Britain’s dairying has the same root cause as the billion worldwide who are undernourished, the billion who are overweight and/or diabetic or in danger of heart disease, global warming, the mass extinction of our fellow creatures: global agriculture, and indeed a global economy, that is geared not to the wellbeing of humankind and of the planet but to short-term wealth, in the simplistic belief that money per se is good and can solve all our problems no matter how it is produced or what it is used for.

To put things right we have to think deeply – in fact re-think from first principles – and act radically.

Tudge’s philosophy is firmly rooted in the back-to-the-land small- is- beautiful tradition beloved of Organic farmers, locavores and romantic pasturalists. The line-up for the Oxford Conference promises more of the same, including offerings from Schumacher College. Read the full post »

Gatekeepers of Bad Science

I have to admit something very embarrassing and unusual happened yesterday. I was had. It was all the fault of this tweet from Norman Benson:

This had me carefully searching the linked Guardian piece reporting on Sir Paul’s comments, wondering where the story of Ehrlich’s sacking was.

Tim Worstall himself responded with :

Duh. I am now the laughing stock of the Twittersphere, and it is all Norm’s fault. My only defence is that hope springs eternal.

What is all this about? Professor Paul Ehrlich was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 2012, adding yet another accolade to a career spanning decades that has gained him every top scientific award going (apart from a Nobel Prize.) While much of his success is based on genuinely good science in ecology, he has essentially been wrong about everything that has made him most famous- an extreme form of apocalyptic environmental doomerism, starting with the infamous Population Bomb in 1968.

Therein lies the problem. Ehrlich’s doomerism- some of which would put Greenpeace to shame- though completely unsupported by actual scientific evidence is nevertheless fully endorsed- lauded even- by the Scientific Establishment. Tim Worstall’s tongue-in-cheek tweet was to point to the irony and hypocrisy of Nurse’s injunction to “crush and bury” “serial offenders” who continually misuse science to support their preconceived beliefs: he was not talking about the likes of Ehrlich.

Ben Pile has a lengthy discussion about this, discussing both Nurse, and Professor Brian Cox- who has taken Nurse’s advice to heart in <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/03/brian-cox-scientists-climate-change"a recent Guardian interview.

Pile explains:

For all his talk of the importance of science and scientific evidence, Paul Nurse never actually takes issue with those he now demands should be ‘crushed and buried’. The problem isn’t as simple as this physician not knowing anything about climate science; Paul Nurse is a moral coward as much as he is an ignoramus.

Nurse wants others -like Cox- to do his dirty work for him; but Cox is not better- nowhere does he actually give an example of the misrepresentation of science he claims to be railing against. Brendan O’Neill takes him to task for inverting the scientific method by claiming, astonishingly, that “knowledge should not be controversial” but in his response, Cox doesn’t even have the balls to name those he is objecting to (O’Neill and Delingpole). Nowhere is any evidence or analysis provided by either of these denizens of science communication of actual instances of science being misrepresented or evidence on climate change obscured. This is intellectual cowardice of the highest (lowest?) order.

Instead, as is routine and indeed institutionalised in the climate debate, both Nurse and Cox reduce the entire gamut of scientific and political debate about climate to a simplistic binary “it is happening or it is not happening” which as Pile points out means nothing. The reason that there is so much emphases placed on things like the “97% consensus” on climate change is precisely because there is so little certainty about anything else- risks, rate of warming, impacts, much less mitigation and other policies.

All this is because the policy has already been decided. Gatekeepers of the scientific establishment want to draw a straight and unambiguous line from “AGW is real” to Kyoto and the UNFCCC process (already dead in the water since India and China will not play ball over emissions reduction targets).

Once again, it is not “deniers” or the media who give them airtime which is undermining public’s trust in Science. To answer this question, Nurse and Cox need look no further than themselves.

Virtuous Corruption

From the zone5 archives:
First published May 6th 2011 on the my old and now defunct zone5 blog.
Following on from the last post on the “97% consensus” this book also had an interesting discussion on the earlier study by Oreskes

Book Review
The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science
Aynsley Kellow
Edgar Elgar 2007

Complete book downloadable here as a pdf.

Virtuous Corruption

This book by Aynsley Kellow, Professor of Politics and Policy at the University of Tasmania, Australia, is a provocative and in depth look at the degree to which the scientific underpinnings of environmental policy may be at times, and perhaps even chronically, be subject to a sort of “virtual corruption” in which results are biased consciously or unconsciously to fit what the researchers may perceive to be a virtuous cause of environmental protection; and how increasingly this is facilitated by the movement of actual scientific research away from direct observation and field studies towards a ‘virtual science’ of computer modelling.

Kellow asserts that

a purely ‘scientific’ basis for public policy may be a chimera: there is rarely a linear relationship between science and public policy, with scientific understanding leading to only one policy option.

Kellow begins with the example of the “khting vor“, a species of horned cow in Vietnam which was on the 2003 Red List of endangered species put out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) even though there was every indication that such an animal had never existed. It appeared to be a mythical beast of which numerous museum specimens were in fact fakes.

Much could be written about the process whereby the IUCN consensus (or other international consensus documents on science) was produced, but suffice to say that nobody really had a strong reason to oppose its inclusion, and plenty had some reason to list it. For any skeptics, the invocation of the precautionary principle has been enough to repel dissent. After all, it might have existed…

In the next chapter Kellow examines the political ecology of conservation biology with reference of one of the bastions of environmental ideology, the question of biodiversity. This is one of the key indicators of human impact on the natural world: Greenpeace for example cites species loss at being anything from 50,000 to 100,000 species each year. However, as Kellow points out, few of these are actual known species whose extinction has been documented and confirmed. The IUCN-World Conservation Union, Kellow cites, claim that only ‘more than 800′ plant and animal extinctions since 1500 have been confirmed; the rest appear to be computer generated extrapolations. To put this in context, no one knows how many species there are anyway, with about 1.7million have been described while estimates of the total range from 5 to 100 million. Kellow cites examples of species that were believed to have been extinct that have then reappeared; and while loss of biodiversity and extinctions are of course concerning, most extinctions cited in the very large figures of Greenpeace for example seem to be “virtual’ extinctions.

(It might also be pointed out that in some cases extinction might be a good thing: in a recent conversation with an out-spoken neo-Malthusian of my acquaintance on this topic I gave smallpox and the AIDS virus as examples, to which the response was ‘Why?’- he seemed comfortable with the argument that since every species has equal right to exist alongside ourselves, we have no right to fight against diseases.)

The ideology behind this comes from the notion of the primacy of biodiversity- more diversity is always good as this contributes to the resilience of the ‘balance of nature’ and the strengthening of the fragile ‘web of life’.

Kellow questions these assumptions as well, arguing that “over the past 30 years the idea of adaptation to disturbance” has replaced the concept of the climax community among most ecological scientists” and goes onto say:

It is a point of some interest that in the popular imagination, the stability of the climax community is probably still the dominant ‘myth of nature’, sustained by constant repetition by political ecologists, and like ‘sustained yield’, the progenitor of ‘sustainable development’ (which emerged in a social context of great uncertainty in Germany), no doubt offering the reassurance of stability in uncertain and rapidly changing times. Similarly, ‘climate change’ suggests that the climate doesn’t usually change, which geological science tells us is poppycock.

Kellow gives other examples of this: if the ecosystem (or the climate) is always changing, what state are we supposed to try to conserve? Whatever decisions we take in ecological management, they will inevitably be governed by our own human values about nature. A classic example of this is the ‘native-exotic’ debate: for example, in the woodlands of Glengariff near here, when they were granted SAC (Special Area od Conservation) status over 10 years ago, all the conifers including some high-grade timber such as Cedar and Douglas Fir were removed (I know as I have a couple of beams from those trees in my roundhouse frame) in order to keep the woodland as ‘native’ as possible: but to a permaculturalist, this conservation ethic seems arbitrary and wasteful. Few exotics are actually invasive (rhododendron being an obvious example) while maintaining areas as museum pieces frozen at a particular moment in time involves in keeping humans from taking a sustainable yield. David Holmgren gave me a more extreme example from New Zealand where Douglas Fir was invading the denuded slopes of the Southern Alps. This was dealt with by spraying herbicides from helicopters to deter this ‘invasive’ species.

(Michael Crichton gives other examples of this from the management of National Parks in America which he considers to have been disastrous causing more harm than good, and cites Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: the destruction of America’s first National Park.)

Environmentalists took to the idea of a self-regulating ecosystem like ducks to Walden Pond but they failed to appreciate that it was the product of mathematics, part of the very post-Enlightenment rationality they were rejecting as they began to turn ecological science into religion, where knowledge rested on the ‘almost sensuous intuiting of natural harmonies’, as Theodore Rosak put it, and the balance of nature was thus granted sacred status.

{see my more recent post reviewing Daniel Botkin’s book which also examines these themes of early computer modelling and the myth f the “balance of nature”.}

Kellow continues with these themes in the next two chapters on climate science, which he calls “post-normal” or “virtual” because of its reliance on computer models and its politicization. Kellow presents here a detailed examination of climate science, the problems with computer models and the way this is used to promote in his view a political agenda. They represent the most damning critique of climate science- all the more so since it was written before climategate but points some of the blame at many of the same players.

One of the problems with modelling is that the models are only as good as the data that is fed into them; yet they have a tendency to become tautological as the models themselves are then used to assess the quality of the data: this is one of the ways in which there may be a strong tendency for “virtuous corruption” in the field. For example, Kellow argues that not only does the data have to be nursed in order to “correct” for the Urban Heat Island Effect, but Kellow cites another example of erroneous data being fed into the models leading to misleading conclusions about future emissions from developing nations, an error based upon hugely underestimating their relative wealth and therefore over-estimating the likely increases in emissions as they develop.

Kellow takes a look at the infamous hockey-stick graph published in 1998 by Mann et al (later to play centre-stage in climategate) and how a couple of papers over-turned the accepted history of global temperatures by essentially eliminating the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) in order to make recent warming look “unprecedented.”

What was surprising was not the publication of a couple of papers which challenged the established scientific orthodoxy- that happens all the time- but that these papers were accepted and became the new orthodoxy so quickly and so readily, and it is clear that both the alacrity and readiness and subsequent defence of the new orthodoxy were inextricably related to the political value of the findings.

One of the most interesting sections is examples given of papers that might have questioned the so-called “consensus” on climate science, but which were rejected by journals or found difficulty in passing peer-review, and also Kellow’s critique of Oreskes 2004 paper claiming in a survey of all 928 scientific papers produced between 1993 and 2003 using the keywords “climate change” that there was essentially no peer-reviewed literature that questioned the “consensus”. Kellow is eviscerating of this paper which he sees as

palpable nonsense, as could quickly be verified by a replication of the search- a test any referee or editor could have subjected the paper to, had they bothered, and had they been at all skeptical of the claim…
…a search of the ISI database using ‘climate change’ produced 12000 papers, and Oreskes was forced to admit… that she had used the three keywords ‘global climate change’, which had reduced the return by an order of magnitude. Science published a correction by Oreskes but it refused to publish a letter from Dr. Benny Peiser which showed that her numbers could not be replicated, and another by Dr. Dennis Bray reporting a survey of climate scientists showing that fewer than 1 in 10 considered that climate change was principally caused by human activity.

The general view expressed by Oreskes is that skeptics are in the pay of Big Oil and therefore there is a professional motive to cast doubt on the consensus. This naive view extends throughout the environmental movement- detractors to any environmental concern are angrily dismissed as industry stooges. While it is easy to see how the oil and coal industry may have a vested interest in casting such doubts, the gas an nuclear industries stand to gain from Kyoto-style treaties, and carbon- trading may be seriously open to corruption from unscrupulous financial corporations, a charge levied at Enron. Just as homeopathy is marketed as an “alternative” to Evil Big Pharma but is actually sold for maximum profit just like real pharmaceuticals, so multi-national environmental NGOs also have agendas, manipulate data to attract more funding, and the same may also be true of activist scientists.
Kellow then goes on in the next chapter to examine the specific case of the attack on Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Swedish Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, Bjorn Lomborg was vilified- and continues to be so- not just for taking issue with proposed responses to climate change, namely the rapid Kyoto-style reduction in emissions, but in his challenge of the deeper tenets of environmentalism, namely that doomsday claims made by environmentalists are often not supported by the evidence and things may not be quite as bad as some would have us believe.

Kellow argues that the rise of virtual science based only on models and not checked in the real world reflect “the prominence among science of those who have been supporting a pessimistic view of environmental degradation since the re-emergence of Malthusianism from the late-1960s, exemplified particularly by Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich and his associates.” Kellow examines a group centered around Population Bomb author Professor Paul Ehrlich who vigorously defended there worldview which Lomborg characterized as the “Litany” of environmental doom.

Lomborg tells of how he had begin to examine the claims made by economist Julian Simon in the 1980s, who famously made a bet with Ehrlich that prices of a selection commodities would decline rather than increase, thus giving the lie to the Club of Rome’s 1972 report Limits to Growth. Simon won the bet, and as Lomborg examined his critiques of environmentalist pessimism also began to see how Ehrlich and others were wrong.

What is significant about the response to Lomborg was its irrationality, ad hominem attacks (IPCC chairman Pachauri likened Lomborg to Hitler) and lack of scientific rigour. Importantly however, one of the negative reviewers, Michael Grubb, accepted Lomborg’s view that the Litany was overplayed and in many areas things were in fact getting better:

To any modern professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was mostly wrong or that Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have perennially exaggerated the problems of food supply
(It just happens that yesterday’s Guardian carries a story on just that- Lester Brown exaggerating the problems of food supply).

The problem was that many of the attacks from the likes of Michael Grubb, Jeffrey Harvey and Stuart Pimm, and other in the Union of Concerned Scientists, were themselves subject to Lomborg’s critique of promoting the Litany:

Not only were these critics the principle “litanists” whose reputations Lomborg had called into question, they were a small and tightly-defined group. They all seemed to be connected by an association with one person: Paul Ehrlich, who had famously lost the wager with Julian Simon, the contrarian whose statistics Lomborg had set out to disprove.

Kellow makes the important point that of course there are strong reasons to protect biodiversity and address climate impacts, but that the specific policies promoted themselves fall outside the remit of pure science- they require more than just science to justify them; there is an irony in the exaggerated attack on Lomborg since it rather proved his point that the Litany is exaggerated; and that while in medical science for example there is a strong principle of declaring conflict of interests,

rarely do we find declarations of political conflict of interest in the broad field of what we might broadly call ‘environmental science.’

Kellow goes on to give many other examples of the politicization of what he calls “activist scientists” in general environmentalism and climate science:

Many ‘activist’ environmental scientists … seem largely unaware that it is there cultural views (or myths) of nature that largely drive their particular ‘take’ on science

while he also makes the case that there are large amounts of funding and vested interest at stake for environmental groups, who gain from the continual belief that we are facing into environmental catastrophe.
This is an important book which documents thoroughly some of the history of the environmental movement and how climate change became its flagship, based on virtual science and a leaping from data to policy that is presented to the public and policy makers as if neutral, when in fact it is frequently imbued with ideology. There are lots of questions to be asked of both the environmental movement and the process of science itself; ultimately however, Kellow concludes that there may not be outright dishonesty involved:

Virtuous corruption need not presuppose deliberate or even conscious manipulation of data or models, but simply the privileging of certain results through the lack of sufficient skepticism of data and methods that provide answers that are politically useful.

When 97% is not enough

This study is a teachable moment, a future textbook example of scientific scams…
The people who conducted the Cook study don’t understand rudimentary epistemology, or what counts as evidence of anthropogenic climate change….
They’re willing to do absolutely stunning, unbelievable things to score political points.

-Jose Duarte

Cook did achieve something. Anyone who, for whatever reason, wants to argue that climate researchers are incompetent, secretive and dishonest has found a prime example in John Cook.

Professor Richard Tol

We all know that the science on climate change is settled, right? Anyone with any doubts can simply refer to the 97% consensus “study” by John Cook and Nuccitelli of the SkepticalScience website.

That study has come under a lot of criticism- inappropriate sampling techniques, failure to release data, and other methodological issues.

Professor Richard Tol, whose own papers were rated as part of the study, writes:

Cook and co selected some 12,000 papers from the scientific literature to test whether these papers support the hypothesis that humans played a substantial role in the observed warming of the Earth. 12,000 is a strange number. The climate literature is much larger. The number of papers on the detection and attribution of climate change is much, much smaller.

Cook’s sample is not representative. Any conclusion they draw is not about “the literature” but rather about the papers they happened to find.

Most of the papers they studied are not about climate change and its causes, but many were taken as evidence nonetheless. Papers on carbon taxes naturally assume that carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming – but assumptions are not conclusions….

The data is also ridden with error. By Cook’s own calculations, 7% of the ratings are wrong. Spot checks suggest a much larger number of errors, up to one-third.

Cook tried to validate the results by having authors rate their own papers. In almost two out of three cases, the author disagreed with Cook’s team about the message of the paper in question.

These are serious basic flaws that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of methodology- especially for the social sciences- should readily be able to comprehend. Yet not only did this study pass peer review, it has been cited thousands of times and is the go-to reference to “prove” the consensus on climate change. More than anything else, it provides the rational behind the constant refrain we hear of “deniers” leveled at anyone daring to even so much as ask questions about “the consensus.”

Cook tells us

Once our paper (Cook et al. 2013) was published, our results generated a great deal of interest. Distributing press releases from the universities of myself and my coauthors led to media coverage in over 28 countries, including a number of non-English speaking countries (thank goodness for Google Translate). Interest peaked when President Obama’s Twitter account tweeted about our research to 31 million followers (Obama 2013b). Several weeks later, President Obama mentioned the 97% consensus in a landmark speech on climate change (Obama 2013a).

Our paper was ranked as the 11th most talked about scholarly paper in 2013 (Altmetric 2014). Sadly, we were pipped out of the top ten by a paper about Sudoku. Our research was also listed in the top 5% of all scholarly papers…

The influence of this paper has been huge, and in online debates on climate change I can pretty much guarantee it being leveled at me every time, often along with the redundant comment, “I can’t believe we are even discussing climate change! The science is settled!”

Sure, the science is settled- but only in so far as we know that CO2 is a human gas, and as we burn more fossil fuels and put more CO2 into the atmosphere, we can expect the earth to warm. But continue much beyond that, and all bets are off.
There is no consensus on how much CO2 will cause how much warming;
no consensus on how many other natural and man-made effects will either add to or reduce the warming;
no consensus on specific impacts;
and especially, there is no consensus on policy- what, if anything, we can or should do about it, which is not, of course, a question for science alone.

Recently another critique appeared of the Cook consensus paper- not so much a rebuttal or refutation as an evisceration.
Jose Duarte is a social psychology doctoral candidate at Arizona State University specializing in methodological validity in social science. He seems to have been surprised at what he found when he came to examine the Cook paper. His findings have lead him to call for the paper’s withdrawal. Duarte’s powerful and uncompromising use of language makes his views worth quoting at length:

This study is a teachable moment, a future textbook example of scientific scams.

This paper is vacated, as a scientific product, given that it included psychology papers, and also given that it twice lied about its method (claiming not to count social science papers, and claiming to use independent raters), and the professed cheating by the raters…

The people who conducted the Cook study don’t understand rudimentary epistemology, or what counts as evidence of anthropogenic climate change….

Those of you who have shaped yourself into pretzels defending this study should be ashamed….

Duarte particularly points to the fact that the raters themselves- all “volunteers from the SkepticalScience team” in Cook’s own words- were themselves political activists, rating papers in their own area of activism- something he can scarcely believe could actually happen at all, never mind pass peer-review;
and that many of the papers examined were not climate science papers at all, but included one paper on cooking stove design in Bangladesh, as well as psychology papers, marketing papers and general endorsements of climate change from the general public.

“Nuccitelli” [one of the co-authors] Duarte tells us, “thinks that if a psychology paper uses the phrase “climate change denial”, it could count as scientific endorsement of anthropogenic climate change. We should linger on that. This is a staggering level of stupidity with respect to what would count as scientific evidence of AGW. ” (emphases added.)

he continues:

I get the impression that Cook and company don’t think they’re militant political activists, as though being a staunch leftist is the default rational position, not partisan (even though they talk about politics more than science on some of their pages, savage skeptical scientists, Republicans, and oil companies, ignore scientific evidence and papers that conflict with their views, ignore a large swath of economics, and are just off the charts in their “denier! denier!” hostility) — if you seriously think that the only “partisans” are people who disagree with you, then you’ve not yet achieved mature adulthood….

I think some of you who’ve defended this “study” got on the wrong train. I don’t think you meant to end up here. I think it was an accident. You thought you were getting on the Science Train. You thought these people — Cook, Nuccitelli, Lewandowsky — were the science crowd, and that the opposition was anti-science, “deniers” and so forth. I hope it’s clear at this point that this was not the Science Train. This is a different train. These people care much less about science than they do about politics. They’re willing to do absolutely stunning, unbelievable things to score political points. What they did still stuns me, that they did this on purpose, that it was published, that we live in a world where people can publish these sorts of obvious scams in normally scientific journals….

If our science category or camp includes people like Cook and Nuccitelli, it’s no longer a science category. We won’t have credibility as pro-science people if those people are the standard bearers. Those people are in a different category, a different camp, and it won’t be called “science”. Those climate scientists who have touted, endorsed, and defended the Cook et al. study – I suggest you reconsider. I also suggest that you run some basic correction for the known bias, and cognitive dissonance, humans have against changing their position, admitting they were wrong, etc. Do you really want to be on the historical record as a defender of this absurd malpractice? It’s not going to age well, and as a scientist, certain values and principles should matter more to you than politics.

There have been several previous studies on the scientific consensus on climate change before, but many of them suffer from much the same methodological flaws, and most ask much the same binary questions- is human-caused CO2 warming the planet or not?

Duarte comments:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (2014) broke my heart, by releasing a wildly unscientific report that cherry-picked only the studies that gave it the inflated consensus figures it wanted — many of which are so bad as to be inadmissable. When scientists want to review a body of research, they conduct a meta-analysis that includes all the research that meets certain criteria of rigor and validity. The AAAS strangely chose not to perform a meta-analysis — they simply ignored most studies, and cherry-picked four studies that gave them the inflated, shock-value numbers they wanted. Among the four was an obsolete one-page study from 2004 that doesn’t clearly describe its methods (Oreskes, 2004, yes, really, one page long). That is, they skipped past all the more recent and credible studies from the intervening decade (e.g. Harris (2007), Bray and van Storch (2008), and others) to reach all the way back to a junk study from 2004. I’ve never seen such behavior – we clearly can’t do anything with mysterious one-pagers from 2004. This isn’t what I expected.

NASA come to the same conclusion, apparently based on the same three cherry-picked studies:

W. R. L. Anderegg, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 107 No. 27, 12107-12109 (21 June 2010); DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107.

P. T. Doran & M. K. Zimmerman, “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Eos Transactions American Geophysical Union Vol. 90 Issue 3 (2009), 22; DOI: 10.1029/2009EO030002.

N. Oreskes, “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science Vol. 306 no. 5702, p. 1686 (3 December 2004); DOI: 10.1126/science.1103618.

The Doran paper was not the actual study, but merely cites a survey by an MSc student, Zimmerman. Barry Woods explains:

a survey of 10,256 with 3146 respondents was whittled down to 75 out of 77 “expert” ‘active climate researchers’ (ACR) to give the 97% figure, based on just two very simplistic (shallow) questions that even the majority of sceptics might agree with.

Lawrence Soloman examined the Andregg paper:

To encourage a high participation among these remaining disciplines, the two researchers decided on a quickie survey that would take less than two minutes to complete, and would be done online, saving the respondents the hassle of mailing a reply. Nevertheless, most didn’t consider the quickie survey worthy of response – just 3146, or 30.7%, answered the two questions on the survey:

1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?

2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

The questions were actually non-questions. From my discussions with literally hundreds of skeptical scientists over the past few years, I know of none who claims that the planet hasn’t warmed since the 1700s, and almost none who think that humans haven’t contributed in some way to the recent warming – quite apart from carbon dioxide emissions, few would doubt that the creation of cities and the clearing of forests for agricultural lands have affected the climate. When pressed for a figure, global warming skeptics might say that human are responsible for 10% or 15% of the warming; some skeptics place the upper bound of man’s contribution at 35%. The skeptics only deny that humans played a dominant role in Earth’s warming. …

As for the second question, 82% of the earth scientists replied that that human activity had significantly contributed to the warming. Here the vagueness of the question comes into play. Since skeptics believe that human activity been a contributing factor, their answer would have turned on whether they consider a 10% or 15% or 35% increase to be a significant contributing factor. Some would, some wouldn’t.

In any case, the two researchers must have feared that an 82% figure would fall short of a convincing consensus – almost one in five wasn’t blaming humans for global warming – so they looked for subsets that would yield a higher percentage. They found it – almost – in those whose recent published peer-reviewed research fell primarily in the climate change field. But the percentage still fell short of the researchers’ ideal. So they made another cut, allowing only the research conducted by those earth scientists who identified themselves as climate scientists.

Once all these cuts were made, 75 out of 77 scientists of unknown qualifications were left endorsing the global warming orthodoxy. The two researchers were then satisfied with their findings. Are you?

This paper by Bodenstein in PNAS concluded:

The study by Anderegg et al. (1) employed suspect methodology that treated publication metrics as a surrogate for expertise. Credentialed scientists, having devoted much of their careers to a certain area, with multiple relevant peer-reviewed publications, should be deemed core experts, notwithstanding that others are more or less prolific in print or that their views stand in the minority. In the climate change (CC) controversy, a priori, one expects that the much larger and more “politically correct” side would excel in certain publication metrics. They continue to cite each other’s work in an upward spiral of self-affirmation. The authors’ treatment of these deficiencies in Materials and Methods was unconvincing in the skewed and politically charged environment of the CC hubbub and where one group is in the vast majority

Thomas Fuller comments:

the worst part of this is the violation of the rights of those they studied. Because Prall keeps lists of skeptical scientists on his weblog, obsessively trawling through online petitions and published lists of letters, and because those lists were used as part of the research, anyone now or in the future can have at their fingertips the names of those who now or in the past dared to disagree.

The Joe Romm’s of this world have already called for this list to be used to deny funding, tenure and grants to scientists. And it will be. It doesn’t matter that the nature of the letters and petitions they signed varied widely, from outright skepticism to really innocuous questioning of the state of the science.

The paper is tagged ‘Climate Deniers.’ Now, so are they.

The question is, why do these “consensus” studies? Why do such appallingly awful studies when it is quite possible to do informative and useful studies (see van Storch 2008) ?

Note that Solomon shows how the sample size in the Andregg survey was whittled down, and the questions simplified, until the magic number of 97% consensus was reached. Basically, you can get any number you want depending on what questions you ask. The reason the questions asked in each of  these studies are set at such a low bar should be obvious: the further away you get from the “Are humans causing Global Warming?” sort of question- which nearly all so-called “climate skeptics” would readily agree to anyway- the lower the figure would be. Add in “dangerous” it will drop; add in “impacts” it will drop; add in “Kyoto” and you will get a very different answer.
Somehow while 83% or 86% or even 91% are still very large majorities, they are not enough.
  These studies are made-to-order, to get to the magic 97% which means “done deal, no wiggle-room”. They have to be able to claim game, set, match- any nuance must be removed, there has to be a straight-forward unimpeachable black-and-white message for policy makers, so they can say to the public “We have to Act. {And we are not going to ask you how you think we Should Act.]  You can’t argue with The Science.”

That is why the methodology doesn’t matter. It is getting to the end result that matters. If Cook had had no other choice, he would have just invented the entire study from his desk. In light of the scrutiny that is now being drawn to his methods, this would probably have been a better option.

The strategy of fabricating a near-100% “consensus” was chosen for specific reasons- the thinking goes like this: if people know that the Science says climate change is Dangerous We Have to Act (which is actually NOT the questions asked in the surveys) then people won’t ask questions about HOW we act, ie what policies to follow- because the policy in question has already been decided: Kyoto. According to this line of thinking, there is a straight line from science to policy. Is AGW happening? yes- now we go straight to Kyoto without passing Go. The politics and science are merged seamlessly with the sledge-hammer of “97%”.

Cook himself says explains here:

Law and psychology professor Dan Kahan questioned whether communicating the scientific consensus was an optimal approach, given that it may provoke a negative reaction from those dismissive of climate change (Kahan 2013). In response, I outlined the evidence for both the efficacy and importance of consensus messaging (Cook 2013b). Consensus information increases both acceptance of human-caused global warming (Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Vaughan 2013) and support for climate policy (Bolsen, Leeper, and Shapiro 2013). But crucially, consensus messaging was shown in an Australian experiment to partially neutralize the biasing influence of ideology with conservatives showing a greater increase in belief in human-caused global warming than liberals (Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Vaughan 2013). A study with U.S. participants found that the increase in perceived consensus in response to consensus information was greatest among conservatives (Kotcher et al. 2014)…

Consensus information increases both acceptance of human-caused global warming…and support for climate policy…

This clearly shows that Cook is motivated to use the consensus message to drive policy- he doesn’t say which policy, so how can he say understanding the consensus would lead to greater acceptance of it? Acceptance of policy depends on what it is, and how much it will cost! This is why the hand-flapping “we have to Act!” is so disingenuous- the policy has already been decided, when Cook says “support for climate policy” he means Kyoto, as if there is only one approach and it follows directly from the 97% consensus.

An article in Scientific American earlier this summer reinforces the obvious with respect to Cook and his agenda:

There’s no doubt that Cook regards climate change as a moral issue.

“As a father, I realized that we are handing over a world to our children that is worse than the world we were given,” he said over the phone from Brisbane, Australia. “And as a Christian, I saw climate change as a social justice issue.”

Curry has a discussion about the history of the use of consensus in this way here:

The role of consensus in this decision making is described by Oreskes (2004): “If we feel that a policy question deserves to be informed by scientific knowledge, then we have no choice but to ask, what is the consensus of experts on this matter? If there is no consensus of experts—as was the case among earth scientists about moving continents before the late 1960s—then we have a case for more research. If there is a consensus of experts—as there is today over the reality of anthropogenic climate change —then we have a case for moving forward with relevant action.

Again, what does “relevant action” mean? Kyoto.

So the wider questions raised are whether policy follows directly from science; what role can or should science have in directing policy; and so on. Cook, Oreskes, and the rest of Climate Orthodoxy have already decided the answer to this, but in following this agenda they have seriously compromised the scientific process and the integrity of science itself.

It is no surprise if people are losing faith in public science if this kind of thing is going on, all the more so since apparently much of the rest of the scientific community- with the majority of the “skeptics” community acting as bullyish gate-keepers- has chosen to circle the wagons to support Cook and his methods -not the *scientific consensus* but the political consensus.

Duarte again:

Cook’s initial response was to say that they weren’t political. I was dumbfounded that he thought he could get away with that, or even more, that he might actually believe it. People who talk about Republicans more than science on some of their issue pages are definitely political. People who use the word denier, or denialist, or denialism, are definitely political, and they’ve made a very strong commitment to their worldview….

A big problem with the cheap thrill of “denier! denier!” is that you’ve made it much harder for your future self to cleanly process evidence that doesn’t fit that narrative. From the perspective of that future self, you didn’t just disagree with other people on this issue — you called them deniers. That’s a bigger thing to be wrong about, from your future self’s perspective — you’ve got more skin in the game. You wouldn’t just be wrong, you’d be someone who was wrong and who smeared your opponents, which will be harder to cop to. The dissonance will likely be greater, and if so, you’ll be more biased. This is ancient and stable social psychology findings. See my collaborator Jon Haidt’s book “Righteous Minds” for a complete take.

Whatever about the cooked-up Cook study, the idea of “communicating science” by forcing the idea of a “consensus” down people’s throats has also received criticism from many quarters. Cook’s response to Kahan is above, but Kahan’s real point is that “the implicit message is that the people who disagree with 97 percent of scientists must be very stupid.”

Tol points out

Consensus is irrelevant in science. There are plenty of examples in history where everyone agreed and everyone was wrong. Cook’s consensus is also irrelevant in policy. They try to show that climate change is real and human-made. It is does not follow whether and by how much greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced.

Political scientist David Victor of the University of California said in a recent talk:

First, we in the scientific community need to acknowledge that the science is softer than we like to portray. The science is not “in” on climate change because we are dealing with a complex system whose full properties are, with current methods, unknowable. The science is “in” on the first steps in the analysis—historical emissions, concentrations, and brute force radiative balance—but not for the steps that actually matter for policy….

Second, under pressure from denialists we in the scientific community have spent too much time talking about consensus. That approach leads us down a path that, at the end, is fundamentally unscientific and might even make us more vulnerable to attack, including attack from our own. The most interesting advances in climate science concern areas where there is no consensus but the consequences for humanity are grave, such as the possibility of extreme catastrophic impacts. We should talk less about consensus and more about the consequences of being wrong—about the lower probability (or low consensus) but high consequence outcomes.

Ultimately, banging on about a consensus in climate change is misleading and uninformative, concealing far more than it reveals.

Of course, I reject Victor’s reference to “denialists” in this sense, and it is ironic since he fails to draw the conclusion his own analysis should lead him to:

If scientists, “science communicators” and policy makers are wondering where the “denialists” come from, or why trust in public science may be waning, yet still rally round, cite or defend in any way “studies” like that of Cook, they need only look at themselves.

Why Bad Things Happen: It’s All a Conspiracy

Rob Hopkins laments the whacky conspiracy theories that circulate about his Transition Movement:

In other words, if Transition gains any sort of traction or success, it must be because powerful forces have allowed it to, indeed have decided that that must be the case, or indeed have actually most likely designed, created and resourced it in the first place.  Conspiracy theorist Ian R Crane used to enjoy, without providing any supporting evidence, referring to “Rob Hopkins and his paymasters”.  The very existence of Transition can be seen as confirmation of dark actors behind the scenes, with everyone’s motives open to question.

 

We have been here before- see Hopkins’ indignant review of the film Thrive from a couple of years ago, and my own post about this around the same time.

In the comments on Rob’s earlier blog, more than one person questions why Rob felt the need to slam Thrive so indignantly and issue a decree that Transitioners should censor themselves from seeing this film. Is there soemthing that touches a nerve he would rather his supporters do not see? Is he worried about competition from libertarian conspiracy theorists? While others who liked the film took issue with his conclusions about it. Clearly, plenty of Transition supporters are happy to buy into the Thrive narrative, indeed that is precisely what motivates them to join Transition.

The second problem is that movements like Transition- and much of the environmental movement- are based firmly on conspiracy theories of their own:
- Big Pharma has suppressed traditional knowledge in medicine and kept secret the miraculous (literally) benefits of homeopathy and herbalism in order to make money;
-in the quest for more “sustainable” farming practices, Big Ag is a bogey-man which is conspiring against much better food production systems like permaculture which are readily available so we are told- in fact far easier apparently than “conventional” farming with much lower inputs- but we are kept from these magical solutions by a conspiracy lead by the likes of Monsanto.

Energy is the same- we could all have clean, cheap abundant energy – well, enough for the lifestyles enjoyed by Transition folk, who would mainly not be willing to give up much- but for a conspiracy of the Evil Oil companies. In essence, the claim that the CIA has suppressed clever free energy inventions invented by maverick geniuses like Tesla or Shauberger is really just the flip-side of believing that wind can solve all our problems but for a shadowy cabal of oil barons who have somehow managed to stop us doing what we are told we can all do anyway on a community level without their help.

If renewable energy was so brilliant, if real- world alternatives to energy-dense oil and gas and nuclear were so simple, it would neither be possible to suppress it, nor would it make any sense to, any more than it would make sense for the powerful to “suppress” free-energy machines: obviously, if they had the technology, they would be the first to implement it in order to take over the world.

One might also ask, why, if renewables are so cool, did we have an Oil Age at all? After all, wind was used for milling etc long before oil- why did we not have modern wind-farms with thousands of 600 hundred-foot steel turbines spinning cleanly away in 1850? Alternatively one could say, oil and gas and nuclear are so energy dense and so effective at bringing billions out of the drudgery of human and draught animal power that has defined nearly all of human history, they effectively are free energy (so why were they not suppressed?)

Rob quotes approvingly from Aaronovitch’s analysis of conspiracy theories yet apparently without a shred of self-awareness that his own views are themselves rooted in conspiracy. He writes:

Do bad things happen because neoliberal capitalism is doomed to eat itself to death and corrupt most of what it touches, and is fighting for the dwindling resources on a finite planet, or, perhaps, because the Moon is an artificial space station built by an ancient alien race which controls our thought patterns and keeps us enslaved (David Icke’s latest theory SaveFrom.net)? Tough call.

How naive can you get- “Bad Things Happen…” sorry, but that is just life. It is hard to survive and it is something of a dog-eat-dog world, or at least fox-eat-chicken. Seriously, it is a jungle out there. “Bad Things Happen” because we do not live in a perfect universe designed purely for human delight and well-being but have had to carve our own niche here, and it just ain’t easy. One is tempted to say “oh just grow-up will you!”

What does this even mean- “capitalism is doomed to eat itself to death” ? -when it is only capitalism (leaving aside the nuances of definitions) that has managed to bring us out of poverty and improve the quality of our lives so much that we now live far longer than in the happy bucolic days of small scale local communities in feudal times that Transition would have us go back to.

(Note: I cannot see Transition as “socialist” or Progressive in any true sense of the word. Socialism was not opposed to technologies such as GMOs or nuclear power, nor was it necessarily about small-scale decentralised communities. Transition is more ultra-conservative, traditionalist and neo-feudalist.)

To believe or accept Rob’s worldview you would have to be in complete denial that for much of humnanity things have gotten immeasurably better over the past couple of centuries, and also believe with great confidence something that really requires extraordinary evidence- that the progress of the past 200 years is about to come to a crashing halt.

As is the case with much environmental thinking, it requires an abnegation of all responsibility, because everything is someone else’s fault.

We could have the Garden of Eden but those greedy capitalists have conspired to keep it from us. There really are perfect permaculture and Transition solutions, but we are unable to realise them just yet not because of the limitations of physics, but because of shadowy powerful elites who have stopped us.

Note the first comment under Rob’s recent conspiracy blog:

The permaculture and environmental activists are just a tiny fraction of humanity, and when I see that most of them usually are followers of conspiracy theories or free energy myths (often both) pessimism invades me. I have began to see these issues, the conspiracy theories and energy illiteracy, as great trojan viruses for the Transition Movement

This gets it half-right: it is absolutely true, and inescapably obvious, that much support for Transition comes from people who are alternative medicine fans, Organics advocates and Earth Mother religion practitioners. (See the comment by “Humanbee” under the earlier post on Thrive: “The were exercises by Joana Macy? witch lead to mass hysteria with people hugging and crying all over the place. Some people saw this compulsory hugging by group pressure as sexual harassment, but the group pressure was so strong that you had to be very strong to step out of the process.
I tried to talk to the trainers about this, but they didn’t want to listen and did not see any problem.
Several people left the transition movement after the training, because of all the bogus in there.
Joanna Macey’s work is a core part of Inner Transition.)

But what it misses is that this is not a “virus” within Transition, something that needs to be dealt with before it goes any further; rather, conspiracy theories form the whole foundation of Transition itself.

Scaring the Children- an AGW LOL

LOL
Guardian eco-journalist Graham Readfearn celebrates his 50th Planet Oz post with a “selection of great comedy moments in climate change” including clips from Ali G, John Oliver and The Onion.

Hilariously Readfearn seems unaware that some of the jokes are on him: check out the first Onion clip in which Christian groups argue that Biblical Armageddon should be taught alongside Global Warming in classrooms as an “alternative” theory as to how we are doomed and are all going to die horribly:

This is a brilliant bit of satire, apparently lost on Readfearn (and I’m not sure about some of the other clips either….), because part of what passes as climate change education really does involve scaring little children as a public policy.

Don’t believe me? Consider that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth- a political propaganda fim made by a VP on the campaign trail- was distributed to every high school in the UK to form part of the geography syllabus, a decision that resulted in legal action against the British government by a concerned parent whose complaints were partly held up in court.

The effects of exposing school children to tales of apocalyptic doom in science classes are explored in the opening scenes of Lomborg’s response to AIT, Cool It!:

School children are interviewed and show their drawings of sea levels rising, countries getting swamped, animals dying, people drowning. “And when do you think all this might happen?” Lomborg asks one of the children
“You never know- it could even happen tomorrow.”

Is this scare-mongering for political purposes really OK? I don’t think so, and comparing climate apocalypse with Biblical teachings of apocalypse brings to mind Dawkins’ famous “religion is child abuse” claims. It is really really not cool to scare children with adult End of Days fantasies, be they Biblical- or Climate- induced.

I showed Lomborg’s film to my students last year and one of them came to complain to me how manipulative it was. Apparently the irony of this was as lost on this student as the Onion’s irony was lost on Readfearn in the Guardian.

Climate alarmism seems to have produced a warped and bizarre sense of humour in its subscribers. I’m surprised Readfearn didn’t include the infamous 10:10 No Pressure video in his list, surly the most non-funny climate comedy sketches ever:

Permaculture and Agroecology

Fascinating post by Andrew Kniss on Redefining Agroecology:

In the agroecology program at the University of Wyoming, we teach that proper use of technology is an indispensable part of achieving sustainability. After all, if technology in crop production was shunned, we’d have succumbed to the Malthusian catastrophe many generations ago. Technological innovations, in many cases, can help us maintain or increase production while minimizing the negative impacts of agriculture. This doesn’t mean that technological solutions should replace important traditional agricultural practices (like crop rotation, manure, appropriate tillage etc.). Technology is most certainly not a substitute for good agronomy. By studying agroecology, we can determine how to best use technology to increase the sustainability of agroecosystems. It also allows us to maximize the benefit of traditional agricultural practices and minimize their negative impact.

The point is that agroecology has lost its origins as a science and become co-opted by the “alternative farming” movement which not surprisingly annoys Kniss:

And this, I think, is why I get a little defensive when the term agroecology is used in conjunction with “utterly unrealistic solutions” and “bogus challenges.” Most frustrating to me, is when agroecology is used in this context:

“We don’t need [insert technology here], because we have agroecology!“

In the comments, Karl Haro von Mogel suggests in order to reclaim agroecology as a science that embraces technology, another term should be found to encompass the political movement.

I think I know what that term might be: Permaculture. After all, in response to my critique of permaculture, some have claimed I ignore the close association with agroecology.

But while Kniss shows that agroecology is really a science that holds no ideological commitment- as a science it merely investigates the ecological interactions in the context of agriculture, with the purpose of benefiting both- permaculture has never been a science and is nothing if not an ideological movement.

Permaculture is not just agriculture ofcourse, and has a heavy focus on urban farms and gardens and small-holdings; and has spread far beyond this to embrace advocacy on everything from sustainable housing to renewable energy to Deep Ecology and airy-fairy “People Care” ; but its origins would seem to be almost identical to what has become the agroecological movement, closely associated with the Food Sovereignty movement (pdf) and the Organics movement, albeit the latter with a narrower and more clearly defined focus.

All of these movements subscribe to the idea that modern agriculture is unsustainable, largely driven by the quest for corporate profit, and heading rapidly over a cliff like demented lemmings;
and they promote their own cause as a simple no-brainer one-size-fits-all Answer to the issues of feeding the world.
They ignore the fact that industrial agriculture has been spectacularly successful in feeding modern populations, and in equal measure ignore the short-comings of the proposed alternatives, including less efficient land-use.
The biggest problem though is their rejection of technologies such as GMOs which can make farming more efficient, precisely because they are ideological movements and not science.

Can we reclaim the word agroecology as a science? Probably not, but it is worth thinking about replacing it with the word permaculture when you see it used as a movement, if only because it helps spotlight permaculture for what it really is.

Put away your Eco-Guilt

Monbiot again a couple of weeks ago:

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

Who has been telling us this “for years” ? Monbiot neglects to tell us- perhaps it is just made up. I assumed however that he was referring to Goklany’s Environmental Transition.

In the early stages of development the primary aim is – as would be expected – promoting growth. But as countries become wealthier they can afford to broaden their focus. ‘The richer a country, the greater its ability to do something about environmental concerns,’ says Goklany. ‘And the reason is simple – they have the economic infrastructure and the human capital to do something about it.’ In effect, the richer countries have the ability to buy themselves a better environment.

According to this theory, nations tend to clean up their act as they get wealthier- once the immediate needs of food and housing and medicine are catered for, there are resources available for cleaning the air and the water. This theory is modeled using the Environmental Kuznets Curve which shows the theoretical point at which despoiling the environment to power growth gives way to that same growth being used to improving the environment. No one who has traveled in a developing country would claim I think that they generally have cleaner air or cleaner water. You only have to compare the air quality of Beijing with that of London to see a striking example. London no longer has the pea-soupers of the 1940s and 50s, but Beijing- which is at a comparable stage of development to London 50 years ago – lives in a permanent and deadly pea soup. Will China be able to use some of its new-found wealth to clean the air so its citizens can go out without face-masks? Time will tell.

The visually sumptuous film Perfume- the Story of a Murderer has a fascinating behind the scenes short on the DVD which I watched a few years ago. In order to replicate the street scenes in the first part of the movie of 18th Century Paris, an entire department had to work for weeks to produce enough pure unadulterated knee-deep filth. The EPA would never allow this these days- and nor would citizens of the developed nations.

This is not to say there is some kind of inevitable straight-line process of development through these stages. As Yandle et al suggest (pdf)

Saying all this may tempt one to think that higher incomes alone will solve most environmental problems. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. If it were, transfers of income from richer to poorer societies—through foreign aid, for example—would enable the recipients to avoid environmental destruction. The movement along an environmental Kuznets curve is also a movement through a well-known set of property rights stations.

Wealth and growth are necessary- but not sufficient in themselves- to guarantee a cleaner environment.

Tim Worstall has already pointed out that it is what people do, not what they say they care about, that counts:

We might change out minds a little bit about this if we are to talk of climate change: for it is true that emissions from people living in the rich world are higher than of those living in the poor. But do also note what is happening: we rich world people are putting in place the expensive plans required to lower those emissions. Feed in tariffs, cap and trade, carbon taxes: whether you want to “take climate change seriously” or not is entirely up to you. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it is us in the places that apparently don’t care about it that are actually doing things about it.

Another example of this with regard to climate change is shale gas: rich world innovation has resulted in the development of cleaner shale gas which has succeeded- in the US at least- where treaties and carbon caps and taxes have so far failed: an overall reduction in CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, most of the increase in CO2 is coming from the still-developing world who rely on cheaper coal to drag themselves out of poverty.

Worstall has looked before at this issue, pointing out that in the IPCC reports, some of their scenarios actually show the highest growth leading to the lowest emissions.

We don’t have to stop economic growth at all, we can quite happily have around the same amount of it that we had in the 20 th century. So that’s a large number of the Green Miserablists shown to be wrong. We don’t have to reduce or even severely limit our energy consumption: we just have to get the growth in our consumption from other than the usual sources. A large number of the Energy Miserablists shown to be wrong there too.

It is not even just how clean the environment becomes however, but the further up Maslow’s hierarchy we climb, the more likely we are to become environmentalists. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus so perceptively point out in their book Breakthrough, environmentalism is not a reaction against modern industrial society, but a product of it.

All this should make Mr. Monbiot very happy, but no, it is not enough for the eco-zealot and True Believer: for them, it is not enough to do good deeds if you do not also feel a suitable amount of Eco-Guilt. However, if you go around asking people to tell you for a survey how much they care, different cultures may tell you very differently without any correlation necessarily to how much they are actually doing. A rich society with a very clean environment for example may list their environment low on a list of concerns simply because it is already fairly well looked after. Equally, in a different culture, asking you to rate your eco-guilt could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The peasant farmer who has to feed and cook for her children today and tomorrow and every day will slash and burn for short-term gain, and even cut down the last tree in sight if needs be, while richer societies have more energy-dense fuels that actually allow them to preserve wilderness. There is similarly plenty of evidence that early humans caused plenty of environmental degradation, probably including species extinction. Protecting endangered species does seem to be a modern invention, and not mainly because there was no need in the past.

Monbiot’s Rewilding project- while worthy and interesting in itself- unfortunately seems to me to barely hide his misanthropy. He reminds me of a modern Thoreau, who idealized Nature while still having his Mum do his laundry.

It is quite right that we should want a clean environment and use some of our wealth to protect wild nature, but surely we can do this without the need to look down our noses at the hoi-polloi who like to do a bit of shopping as well.

Kinsale Horticulture

Sustainable Horticulture at Kinsale

Thirteen years ago a new course started at Kinsale College of Further Education. Called “Practical Sustainability” the course aimed to draw together a wide range of different skills and disciplines including permaculture design, sustainable woodland management, ecology and conservation, gardening and horticulture, natural building and community development.

This ambitious course went from strength to strength and within just a few years became one of the largest and most popular courses of any subject in the whole country, attracting students from all over Ireland, Britain, Europe and North America.

Amphitheatre

Potager garden with theatre behind

…..Read the full story here

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