50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden- (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland- the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.


Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:


Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg-
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010


Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism- human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.


So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists- once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

Greens see Fossil Fuels as Immoral as Slavery

Imagine this scene: you have just driven home in your diesel van from a long day at work and have the dinner on in your gas oven, the electric heating on since it is sub-zero outside, you have thrown in your work clothes into the washing machine and are planning to settle into the latest episode of Game of Thrones after checking your Facebook updates. The kettle has just boiled for some tea but as you go to pour it there is a knock on the door:

“Open up! Transition Town Eco-Police! You are using far too much fossil fuels!” You open the door to save it being broken down and in rush a bunch of goons who start disconnecting your washing machine and cooker, seize your laptop and the kettle, and after giving you a stern warning about Crimes Against Gaia, accusing you of perpetrating a future Holocaust worse than Hitler, leave you shivering and hungry in the kitchen, the charge of “Climate Criminal!” echoing in your ears.

You might I think feel a certain degree of moral outrage at such a removal of your basic human rights to energy- but for Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins, there is no question of where the moral high ground is here:

“There is no ‘moral case for fossil fuels’,” he writes , in response to Alex Epstein’s book which I reviewed in my last post, “just as there was no ‘moral case for slavery’ in 1860.”

Seriously. 1860 refers, presumably, to the start of the Oil Age, while slavery was legally abolished around the same time- in the British Empire in 1833, and in the US by 1865. It surely could not have passed Mr. Hopkins’ consideration that the advent of oil might have had something to do with the end of slavery- a new source of energy far superior to human labour made the whole practice redundant and eventually elevated even slaves to the wealth that previously was only known to Emperors and Kings. Even leaving this idea aside however, conflating use of fossil fuels with slavery seems more that a little odd and confused: Hopkins really is implying here that our current use of fossil fuels is on a moral par with slavery.

The rise of fossil fuel use, Epstein argues, has led to better air quality, increased life expectancy, rising incomes, better access to clean drinking water, etc etc. This is stated as though it is somehow an insight that has escaped those arguing that we should now, with great urgency, leave fossil fuels behind, because, you see, “fossil-fuelled development is the greatest benefactor our environment has ever known”. The argument that it has led to the improvements he states is one that few would argue with.

The problem here is that the Transition movement and much of the Darker Green end of the environmental spectrum do indeed present their political arguments over energy and climate as if the benefits of fossil fuels- which they themselves share in every day with no intention of relinquishing- has in fact escaped them. Moving away from fossil fuels is portrayed as a simple black-and-white issue: the Good Guys want to give it up, the Bad Guys won’t let us. Everything is seen through the lens of the conspiracy theorist who sees the world being run by a secret cabal of Oil Men who have suppressed the invention of Free Energy machines -aka windmills- which the whole world could switch to at very little cost, but are prevented from doing so by Deniers and Free Marketeers.

The Green Hive Mind is simply unable to hold more than one idea in its collective head at a time. Ironic for a new Age movement that claims it has a more “holistic” way of approaching problems and understanding the world, Green Thinking is in reality mono-dimensional and fails to even pick up the pencil, much less join the dots. The thing is, there are pros and cons to everything, and you have to balance the one against the other and make an assessment about whether the benefits justify the costs, something Hopkins refuses to do- after claiming he has no argument about the benefits, he deflects attention away from the whole point of Epstein’s book and just focuses on the downside.

“it can hardly be said to have been without its side effects.” Hopkins continues, “To name but two, it has appallingly corrupted international politics and undermined democracy around the world.”

Right, because there was no corruption before 1860 and everyone lived in Happy Valley with perfect democracies and Nothing Bad ever happened and there were no problems. People- well, OK, women- were happy doing all their washing by hand, everyone walked everywhere or rode horses and had time to talk to each other rather than wasting time watching TV or arguing on Facebook. As every schoolchild knows- and education was also far better before the fossil fuel age- we all used to live in egalitarian anarcho-hippy communes, close to the Earth, with a stable climate that never did anyone any harm, until Big Oil came along and ruined everything.

One of the downsides of Oil, we are reminded, is wealthy Californians living in the shadow of an oil refinery that exploded in 2012. So the answer is obvious: ban oil! Those people however, like Rob Hopkins, me, you and everyone we know, also use fossil fuels to make life better for themselves, refinery or no. Bit of a conundrum, isn’t it? It is simply too much for the Green Mind to cope with- oh the paradox of trying to get your head around the fact that, despite the downsides, we all need oil and coal and gas otherwise we would be even worse off.

Epstein’s argument is rather like staying with a psychotic and abusive partner because the first couple of months of the relationship were very lovely. Just because the first half of the oil age enabled some remarkable things does not mean logically that therefore the second half will be the same.

Why not? Climate Change, and we are treated to a quote about how bad this will get (think: Plague, Pestilence and Death) from the IPCC- neglecting to point out that the very same IPCC report cites low-carbon shale gas as one of the options that needs to be kept on the table as a way of reducing CO2 emissions. That is a fossil fuel by the way and one vigorously opposed by Mr Hopkins and most Transition groups.

Hopkins then runs through various “myths” about climate change which he accuses Epstein of perpetrating (including the one about the
97% consensus covered on this blog here) finishing with “The rest of his arguments about climate change are similarly out-of-date, foundationless and silly… But without them his so called ‘moral case for fossil fuels’ crumbles to dust.”

Except that Epstein’s argument is that the risks of any putative future climate change are drowned out by the overwhelming benefits of having fossil fuels- at least for the next few decades.

At this point Hopkins finds himself running slap bang into his own contradictions and concedes that

“that ‘master of climate’ argument may resonate in his air conditioned house in southern California, it doesn’t work so well in, for example, Pakistan… The Asia Development Bank already suggests that environmental factors, including climate change, are ‘already an important driver in migration’. 10 million people have been displaced by flooding and 2,000 died when 20% of the country was under water.”

That is because they are poor, Mr. Hopkins. Poor because they don’t have access to fossil fuels. That is why so many people died in Pakistan, just as poor people have always been at the mercy of violent weather. In developed nations, climate-related deaths used to be far higher, long before the CO2 scare, because we were also poor- before we had fossil fuels. There it is again- that complete inability to see where the costs and the benefits really lie.

While you could feasibly imagine that fossil fuels might have a small role to play in creating flood defences in Pakistan, the impacts of the developed world, including the emissions associated with Epstein’s air conditioning, will overwhelm any benefits.

This is a hugely complacentand irresponsible statement about the value of development for the vulnerable. Bjorn Lomborg has recently written:

In the Oxford University database for death rates from floods, extreme temperatures, droughts and storms, the average in the first part of last century was more than 13 dead every year per 100,000 people. Since then the death rates have dropped 97% to a new low in the 2010s of 0.38 per 100,000 people.

The dramatic decline is mostly due to economic development that helps nations withstand catastrophes. If you’re rich like Florida, a major hurricane might cause plenty of damage to expensive buildings, but it kills few people and causes a temporary dent in economic output. If a similar hurricane hits a poorer country like the Philippines or Guatemala, it kills many more and can devastate the economy.

With fossil fuels we are all far more secure against what has always been a harsh environment- even at the cost, to an extent, of increased frequency of extreme weather (which we have yet to attribute to man-made CO2). Even if you still disagree with this analysis, the fact is the poor don’t care what us wealthy westerners think- they are going to use fossil fuels to develop as fast as they can and take their chances with the climate.

Hopkins’ Marie-Antoinette version of reality displays itself most stomach-churningly in the next paragraph where, once again admitting

while wealthy nations are able to make themselves safer to climate risks (although it didn’t help much with, for example, the great floods in south west England last year), the developing world, where the impacts are felt most acutely, simply are not, nor are the wealthy nations rushing to help.

But he has just told us up the page of flooding in Pakistan leading to 2000 deaths- nothing like that happened in the UK floods because we have fossil fuels to protect us. Hopkins just doesn’t get it- a complete failure of his moral compass. Nor is he able, once again, to connect the dots between wealth, access to fossil fuels and resilience. His answer to the vulnerability of the poor is- keep them poor. Better be poor and dying than -Gaia Forbid!- emitting nasty CO2 and corrupting their souls by watching soap operas like Western consumers. Would Rob Hopkins support the western nations going to help? Presumably not because once again, this would mean burning more fossil fuels, which is worse than slavery. Alex Epstein would like to help the poor in these circumstances- that is why he called his book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” Of course there is hubris and corruption in mainstream politics, but in this case, the Greens as much as anyone oppose helping the poor, and Hopkins in his confusion confirms this.

Once again, Hopkins finds himself with no other choice but to concede that fossil fuels “have, in many ways, been amazing. But all the evidence shows that continuing with fossil fuels runs a very high risk of finishing us off altogether.”

As already stated, the poor have already made their choice. They will take their chances with the climate. The control-freaks of Transition Central Command do not want them to be free to make that choice for themselves; but more than that, right at the heart of Green thinking is an appalling and innumerate hypocrisy, because Rob, along with all his supporters, have also already made the exact same choice- otherwise they would have given up their cars, plane flights, industrial fuel and every other fossil-fueled convenience long ago.

The sad fact is that these often well-meaning folk delude themselves because they dont do numbers. They have no idea that their own lives are as dependent on fossil fuels just as much as everyone elses, no matter how much veggies they grow or how much cycling they do or how much they cut back on things and turn off their appliances. This is the stark reality of the real inequities of the world: the average western Transitioner uses 15-20 times the fossil fuels that the average Pakistani has access to. Living off-grid in a yurt growing some veggies really makes no difference even. If you live in a rich country, your life is likely to be far easier as a result, because you will be buoyed up by the abundance of cheap energy around you. The eco-yurt-dweller can live well this way as a life-style choice- perhaps availing of the benefits of the fossil-fuelled economy such as social security and modern medicine- but few would really choose the real life of the subsistent peasant for long. At the end of the day, choice is really what it all boils down to- choice that can only be obtained through access to cheap energy.

why is it so impossible to imagine that our inventiveness and brilliance cannot solve the challenges of intermittency in relation to renewables, and enable us to use energy far more efficiently?

asks Hopkins, getting to the nub of how many Greens rationalise this position. It all depends on an entirely fanciful faith in the wind and the sun, supposed winners that have already been chosen long before their pedigree has been examined. Who knows, maybe wind and solar really can be made viable alternatives- but the challenge of using intermittent sources that are orders of magnitude less energy dense does not make them likely candidates, any more than hamster wheels.

As Lomborg has pointed out, wind and solar combined currently supply a mere 0.4% of global energy demand, and even in the most optimistic scenario of the IEA will only achieve some 2% by 2040. For all the urgency about natural and inherent “limits to growth”, any notion of limits seem to be thrown to the wind when it comes to… well, wind power, alongside any sense of costs – the vast amounts of steel for thousands and thousands of giant windturbines, rare earth metals and land that would be required for their widespread deployment.

The only real competitor to fossil fuels is nuclear power, far more energy dense again, but alas, something these Gurus who base their entire manifesto on Positive (Wishful) Thinking are also intransigently opposed to this as well.
Hopkins’ comment that “Their cautiousness does us all a huge disservice” when asking why people like Epstein cannot just have the imagination to “do things differently” made me nearly choke on my coffee when I read it- Hopkins’ entire philosophy rests on the “Precautionary Principle” of Don’t Do Anything in case it Goes Wrong.
Many Green renewable advocates seem to believe that an alternative to fossil fuels can simply be dreamed into existence because they really really want it, and they want it now. Unfortunately, it will take at least several decades to move away from fossil fuels not because of “climate deniers” or politics, but because of economics running up against physics. In the meantime, the only thing these pious sentiments and political ramblings will achieve is to make it much harder for the poor to gain the energy access that really is their moral right.

And that really is as bad as slavery.

What have Fossil Fuels Ever Done for Us?

Book Review:
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Alex Epstein

Portfolio/Penguin 2014

Kindle Edition

Energy is a life and death issue—it is not one where we can afford to be sloppy in our thinking and seize upon statistics that seem to confirm our worldview. -Alex Epstein

Everyone knows fossil fuels are Bad. Bad for the planet, Bad for the environment, Bad for people. They pollute the atmosphere and groundwater, destroy whole eco-systems, and worst of all are responsible for the wholesale eco-cide of the entire biosphere through unstoppable apocalyptic climate change.

But wait, urges Alex Epstein, author of the recent book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Isn’t there something important missing from this narrative of Bad Guy Fossil Fuels? Indeed we might ask, as Monty Python did of the Romans: What have fossil fuels ever done for us?


…apart from education, roads, hospitals, sanitation, and a vastly increased life expectancy… in fact, pretty much everything that makes life in the modern world worth living.

This is the passionate moral case for fossil fuels that Epstein develops in his eminently readable and clearly-laid out book, and through his organisation The Center for Industrial Progress:
contrary to what nearly everyone has been brought up to believe in these strangely post-modern and relativistic times we live in, fossil fuels are not just good, but a moral necessity for the foreseeable future, a human right no less, and it is about time people started making an unequivocal stand for them.

Taking on the Big Guns of the environmental movement such as Bill McKibben, Paul Ehrlich and Amory Lovins, Epstein shows that not only have they been spectacularly wrong in their predictions but that there is a fundamental flaw in their moral philosophy:

The environmental thought leaders’ opposition to fossil fuels is not a mistaken attempt at pursuing human life as their standard of value. They are too smart and knowledgeable to make such a mistake. Their opposition is a consistent attempt at pursuing their actual standard of value: a pristine environment, unaltered nature. Energy is our most powerful means of transforming our environment to meet our needs. If an unaltered, untransformed environment is our standard of value, then nothing could be worse than cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.

This muddled and dangerous way of thinking has become mainstream, infecting our education systems and politics so much that speaking out in favour of the dirty black stuff we dig out of the ground to fuel our civilisation must be the highest form of heresy. Even oil giants such as ExxonMobil and Shell have pandered to environmentalist agendas- for example by avoiding any mention of the word “Oil” on their Homepages, and paying lip-service to renewables and the “idealism” of their opponents without challenging the basic moral argument- something Epstein takes strong issue with in his section “What the Fossil-Fuel Industry must do”.

What is at the heart of this irrational objection to the wonders of cheap energy?

The reason we have come to oppose fossil fuels and not see their virtues is not primarily because of a lack of factual knowledge, but because of the presence of irrational moral prejudice in our leaders and, to a degree, in our entire culture.

But fossil fuels are non-renewable! I hear you say. Is it not crazy to base a society on an essential mineral that is going to run out?
-but predictions of “peak oil” and fears over shortages have been with us since the beginning of the Oil Age- the reality is, we have barely scratched the surface, literally, in terms of the resources that are there in the earth’s crust waiting for the technology to arrive to extract them: the data does not lie- even as our populations grow and demand for energy increases and extraction rises to keep pace, paradoxically fossil fuel reserves continue to grow.

The problem is not the lack of resources, but the increasingly tight straight-jacket being placed around the freedom to extract them:

Our concern for the future should not be running out of energy resources; it should be running out of the freedom to create energy resources, including our number-one energy resource today, fossil fuels.

Ultimately, advanced nuclear energy- the only scalable energy source that is more (potentially far more) energy dense than oil and gas- may step in to drive what will be the greatest energy transition of all time; but although nuclear should still be supported whenever possible, this will take decades- and nuclear, as we all know, is not even considered as an option by most environmentalists.

What about direct pollution from extraction? Naturally, Epstein does not dismiss the obvious downside to mining and drilling- there is certainly an environmental and human-health cost. But what is missing from the general public debate is that as wealth increases as a result of access to energy, so does our ability and desire to clean up the environment. British cities like London were far more polluted by smog in the early industrial era than even Beijing is today. Furthermore, we choose in today’s world to spend some of our fossil-fuel wealth on environmental protection, wilderness preservation and so on, something poor countries cannot easily afford to do. The downsides make fossil fuels an easy target- the overwhelmingly net positive benefits to human life and the environment are generally ignored.

Pessimistic predictions often assume that our environment is perfect until humans mess it up; they don’t consider the possibility that we could improve our environment. But the data of the last forty years indicate that we have been doing exactly that—using fossil fuels.

Shouldn’t we be switching to cleaner energies such as wind, solar and hydro anyway? Apart from the fact that most environmental groups have been busy vigorously opposing hydro-power in much of the world for the past 30 years, the fact is that there simply is no good affordable, scalable alternative to coal, oil and gas at present. Renewables are sometimes dubbed “unreliables”- they don’t work all the time and they need a gas or coal back-up in any case. More than that, they have far lower energy density than the fuels they pertain to replace, in some cases by two or more orders of magnitude.

It seems that there’s more focus on getting energy directly from the sun, which is often considered “natural,” than there is on getting it in a way that will maximize human life. It is deeply irresponsible and disturbing that environmental leaders are telling us to deprive ourselves of fossil fuels on the promise of what can charitably be described as a highly speculative experiment, and can less charitably be described as an ill-conceived, resource-wasting, perennial failure.

Epstein goes onto point out that tens of thousand of giant steel wind-turbines are hardly “renewable” in any meaningful sense, even if the wind is:

For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.

Renewables are low-density, extensive technologies that, if unrolled on the vast scale that would be required for them to really replace much energy-dense coal or gas, would certainly have an immense negative environmental impact on the land where they are installed, but also in the pollution caused by their manufacture. Epstein notes wryly

Fox could make a far more alarming movie than Gasland based on supposedly risk-free solar and wind technology. Imagine a scene at a rare-earth mine in a movie called Wasteland.

In short, Epstein makes clear that trying to replace energy-dense fossil fuels with diffuse intermittent renewables is a recipe for disaster:

If fossil fuels have catastrophic consequences and it makes sense to use a lot less of them, that would be an epic tragedy, given the state of the alternatives right now. Being forced to rely on solar, wind, and biofuels would be a horror beyond anything we can imagine, as a civilization that runs on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy would see its machines dead, its productivity destroyed, its resources disappearing.

At the core of the moral issue must be energy access for the couple of billion in undeveloped countries who currently lack pretty much any access to cheap energy at all: they tend to be very poor with low life-expectancy and high infant-mortality, little educational opportunities and poor or non-existent health services. Yet as a result of the environmental agenda’s influence on current policy, they cannot expect to get much help from the West which has decided it best to keep the poor in the dark with the US refusing to fund coal-fired power stations- the cheapest and most effective option- in developing nations.

Epstein shares some personal opinions from those effected by this naive “Green” policy of only promoting unreliable and expensive renewable energy to those who really need it:

Another Kenyan, James Shikwati of the Inter Region Economic Network, explains why he resents programs to encourage underdeveloped countries to use solar or wind. The rich countries can afford to engage in some luxurious experimentation with other forms of energy, but for us we are still at the stage of survival. I don’t see how a solar panel is going to power a steel industry, how a solar panel is going to power a railway network, it might work, maybe, to power a small transistor radio.

Right now, there are calls to reduce the life-giving, life-sustaining use of fossil-fuels by 80% in order to meet the demands of addressing climate change (and Bill McKibben has apparently called for 95% cuts)- once again we have to ask the question, has a full accounting of both costs AND benefits been done here? Humans have always been, and will always be subject to the vagaries of weather and climate- but it is our technology and skills of innovation that keep us safe.

Epstein claims we are basing policy on bad science and an unreasonable faith in “experts” who have been repeatably shown to be wrong in the past:

many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate….
This sloppy use of “science” as an authority, practiced by politicians of all parties, guarantees that we make bad, unscientific decisions.

Alex Epstein is really unimpressed with the call for alarm so far, with on about a half-degree of warming caused so far since industrial CO2 emissions really picked up pace in the first half of the last century; nor is he impressed by the use of unreliable climate model projections on which to base policy. The last thing we should be doing is timetabling the rapid dismantling of the only way we can actually protect ourselves from storms, droughts, floods and sea-level rise: the cheap, abundant energy produced through fossil fuels.

Thus, climate change, extreme weather, volatility, and danger are all inherent in climate whether or not we affect it with CO2 emissions. Thus, when we think about how fossil fuel use impacts climate livability, we are not asking: Are we taking a stable, safe climate and making it dangerous? But: Are we making our volatile, dangerous climate safer or more dangerous?

Environmental policy is based on the ideological and even religious belief that everything was fine and perfect and dandy in the world until modern humans came along with their dirty technology and filthy fossil fuels. Epstein slices through this deceit rather nicely:

the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability. No matter what, climate will always be naturally hazardous—and the key question will always be whether we have the adaptability to handle it or, better yet, master it.

He concludes with the most important point, again one almost entirely missing from climate discourse (emphasis added):

The climate future appears to be extremely bright. Fossil fuels’ product, energy, has given us an unthinkable mastery over climate and thus record climate livability. And its major climate-affecting by-product, CO2, has fertilized the atmosphere and likely brought some mild and beneficial warming along with it. But we can’t know how good the warming is because, whether it is net negative or positive, it’s completely drowned out by the net positive of the energy effect.

In this essential book, Epstein makes an impassioned call for clarity on what our moral perogative should be in terms of energy, climate and environmental policy:

if we’re on a human standard of value, we need to have an impact on our environment. Transforming our environment is how we survive. Every animal survives in a way that affects its environment; we just do it on a greater scale with far greater ability. We have to be clear: Is human life our standard of value or is “lack of impact” our standard of value?

More than just a close analyses and explanation of what is wrong with the anti-fossil fuel movement, Epstein wants us to take action. He wants the fossil fuel industry to stop being ashamed of its product, but rather proudly speak out in its defence; and he wants you, the reader and every-day user of fossil fuels, to join the debate and stand up to defend the attack on our fossil-fuel future.

We don’t want to “save the planet” from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings.

Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous—because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.

Lynas: Green’s shameful stance over the Poor vs the Climate

In a follow-up to the discussion last week: Mark Lynas has another post on the issue of climate policies hurting the poor:

There is a very good reason why hurricanes of an equivalent ferocity kill thousands in a country like Myanmar or Haiti, but only a few dozen at most in the US or Australia. To be poor is to be vulnerable, even in today’s climate. The fact that only ‘climate sceptics’ tend make this point currently is somewhat shameful.

For Lynas to say this is very welcome- and brave- and seems highly significant, particularly as he fingers one of the leading climate change NGOs, Bill McKibben’s 350.org, saying in response to their “India Beyond Coal” day of action:

The costs of poverty – which includes millions of preventable deaths of young children, lack of access to water and sanitation, reduced livelihood prospects, large-scale hunger and malnutrition, and so on… are clearly much greater than the direct costs of coal burning, and this equation probably still holds even when the future damages from climate change are factored in.

In the comments, Barry Woods calls this “heresy” :

what I don’t understand, why Mark hasn’t been called a ‘coal shill’ or ‘climate denier’ yet by the usual suspects… any sceptic, writing this article would have been, as they have been pointing this dilemma out for years (Lomborg being one such voice, though like most sceptics he has never denied climate change, nor that man contributes)

c’mon. Mark has favourably cited the GWPF, that’s heresy.

Indeed I was called a “shill for Big Coal” for pointing out the same thing exactly on Mark’s previous post. Another comment points out how the IPCC scenarios are predicated on ongoing economic growth leading to most people coming out of poverty by 2100. Should the poor of today be made to pay for the problem’s of the wealthy of the future?

There is nothing wrong with letting the future rich pay for us poor. It is fundamentally unethical to make the poor of this century pay for the rich of this century by promoting the very expensive alternatives. (“No bread? Let them eat cake”). Just ask yourself: how many lives can we save here and now. The future will take care of itself, it always has.

Once again we have to ask: if there really is such justifiable concern over future global warming, why are current policies so hopelessly ineffective at actually reducing CO2, and seem designed only to keep the poor from having a taste of the energy bonanza we all take for granted?

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 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.


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