A man-made morality tale

How the IPCC’s fairly sober summary of climate science has been spun to tell a story of Fate, Doom and human folly.

Various Authors

Topics Science & Tech

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Introducing spiked’s coverage of the IPCC report, James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky look at how claims of scientific truth are being used to quash debate and limit our horizons.

On 2 February 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a summary of a report due to come out in three months’ time (1). Events surrounding it show how far both the professional drafting and media interpretation of science have become infused with today’s anti-humanist politics.

Politically spun and politically interpreted, science is first made incontrovertible and put on a pedestal; turned, in a word, into scientism. Then, science is used to close down political debate. Finally, it is said to confirm the folly, hubris, selfishness and general dirtiness of mankind. Whatever our pretensions, we are now supposed to be pretty loathsome compared with the grandeur of the polar ice caps that now face ruin at our hands. And, in the same spirit, what mankind could really be doing with technology becomes trivialised.

According to the Financial Times, ‘The world’s leading climate scientists on Friday swept away the last doubts surrounding global warming’ (2). Indeed Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a co-founder of the IPCC, says that the IPCC’s new report means that to resist laws making cuts in greenhouse gas emissions mandatory would now be ‘irresponsible’ (3).

So doubt, a key ingredient of the scientific method, is now out. Yet if science is abused in this way, it is also deified. UK environment minister David Miliband will make Britain the first nation in Europe to send Al Gore’s science slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth, to every school in the country. Even before that, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, in calling for a 90 per cent cut in CO2 emissions, insisted that this was ‘what the science appears to demand’ (4). Similarly, with last year’s Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, Sir Nicholas Stern declared that the structure of his economics was ‘essentially dictated by the structure of the science’ (5). From the bejeaned George Monbiot to the impeccably suited Sir Nicholas, climate science is now held to determine both politics and economics. Science seems to have become the Great Dictator, and no dissent can be allowed.

We refer to this as the New Scientism. We call it new to distinguish it from the old sort – the sort that, ironically enough, was organised by US imperialism in the Cold War. During that era, the RAND Corporation, a think-tank founded in 1948 by the US Air Force and loan guarantees from the Ford Foundation, ‘sought to reduce politics to a purely quantitative discipline, and… had no qualms about applying the most esoteric mathematical tools to the calibration of nuclear “collateral damage”’… It devised plans on how to ration access to nuclear fallout shelters. One of RAND’s suggestions was to let children into such shelters first, and then exclude their parents….’ (6)

Ironically, greens now rehabilitate the Cold War scientism of RAND, which they affect to hate so much, so as to legitimise not the Cold War, but today’s war on personal behaviour – the war to colonise people’s minds, make them internalise green mores, and make them spend all their time buying (and repairing) windmills, sorting their rubbish, and turning off their consumer electronics equipment. Instead of rationing access to fallout shelters, David Miliband wants a nationwide scheme to ration carbon. Why? To ‘empower’ individuals and local communities as part of ‘the mass mobilising movement of our age…cumulative, consistent radicalism’ (7).

As with the original Cold War scientism, the New Scientism perverts objective science towards questionable political ends. Consider the reaction to the IPCC report. Importantly, that report says, in bold type: ‘Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. This is an advance since the TAR’s [the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, 2001] conclusion that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”. Discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns.’ (8)

First, it is not immediately clear, scientifically, how the IPCC went from ‘likely’ to ‘very likely’ on the question of the contribution of man’s emissions to climate change. It seems likely that political pressure played a role here. Secondly, how did the media universally translate the IPCC’s fairly careful account of ‘discernible human influences’? They translated it as mankind being, without doubt, ‘to blame’ for a future disaster. It seems the IPCC summary was not actually read, but rather simply corralled into the service of longstanding political views and prejudices.

Some have used the IPCC summary to assert that the debate on climate change is over. In part, this stems from the proclamations of the IPCC itself and its supporters. For example, Achim Steiner said that 2 February, the day the summary was published, would be ‘remembered as the day the question mark was removed’. Anyone interested in genuine scientific inquiry, not to mention political debate, should always be concerned when question marks are removed. And the chorus claiming that this is the ‘end of the debate’ overlooks the more tentative conclusions in the IPPC summary. When, as above, the IPCC uses terms such as ‘likely’, ‘very likely’ and so on, it does so as to indicate quantitative levels of probability. These levels sometimes have a basis in statistics, and sometimes represent an expert judgment. The number of times that each term is used in the report shows that its conclusions are built on a large number of probable lines of evidence. They are hardly definitive findings:

Neither in 2001 nor in 2007 has the IPCC itself asserted that debate on climate change is over (though it has moved in the direction of ‘removing question marks’, and thus helping to shut down discussion). Rather, advances in theory and observation, particularly around our understanding of atmospheric aerosol particles and the measurements of temperature taken by satellite, have allowed the IPCC to upgrade its levels of confidence from below 90 per cent to somewhere between 90 and 95.

The origins and real status of the IPCC report

What, anyway, is the status of the IPCC’s summary? It is a 21-page paper titled Summary for Policymakers: there are just 13 pages of argument, and seven pages of captioned charts. The whole thing was drafted by 33 scientists, along with a further 18 contributors.

The summary is not the same at all as Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, the first volume of Climate Change 2007, also known as the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). Some 600 authors from 40 countries, along with 620 expert reviewers and a large number of government reviewers, helped draft that doorstopper of a report. A draft exists, but it will not be finalised and published until April (9). Indeed, just this first volume on the physical science of climate change runs to 11 chapters (10).

At the same time, only Working Group I of the IPCC has produced this first volume. Among other issues, Working Group III concerns itself with the usual belt-tightening strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which come under the heading of ‘mitigation’: strategies that include taxes and emissions trading. Working Group II concerns itself with what it calls ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’. Here, adaptation to climate change – how, in line with a warmer climate, to re-fashion hydrology, agriculture, coastal systems, industry, services and human settlement – is an issue more interesting but less bothered with by the media than mitigation (or indeed impacts and vulnerability) (11). But whichever way we look at the summary, it’s clear that we are dealing, in fact, with a short digest of one of three whole book-length volumes.

How then was it arrived at, and what is its relationship with the full-on, cast of hundreds Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis? The summary is part of an ongoing series of assessments designed to provide scientific advice to governments. Rather than performing original research, the IPCC aims to review and synthesise existing work. That can be seen as performing a useful service.

When, however, the media focus on the publication of a single study like the summary, they perform a much less useful service. In science, as elsewhere, the significance of a paper cannot be judged unless it is situated within the context of many others. Scientists, for example, themselves talk about the need to replicate the new results reported in one research paper in a further series of subsequent papers, each researched and written independently from the first, More broadly, the full integration of new results into a wider body of knowledge can often take several years. That’s not a schedule that fits the news cycle.

The IPCC is more reflective. It has issued Assessments in 1990, 1995, 2001 and now 2007. Each Assessment produces the three book-length volumes we have talked about. Because these are too long, complex and detailed to be widely read, the IPCC also produces three different kinds of Summary for Policymakers. By necessity, the process of summarising each big volume leaves out nuances, qualifications and complexities.

In principle the IPCC is supposed to be ‘policy neutral’, meaning that it is to present only the facts – the facts upon which policy can be based. But in today’s political culture, where so many insist that science should be read prescriptively, governments have taken a keen interest in IPCC Assessments, and the IPCC itself has become increasingly politicised. So although drafted by scientists, the summary now paraded by the world’s media is vetted line by line by government representatives, accompanied by observers from bodies including the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association and the International Aluminum Institute, as well as by observers from non-governmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (12).

The fact that governments may not, with any luck, intervene in this way in the full reports well captures official attitudes toward science today. The concern is not with science per se, but with the creation of a message that is usable for policy. We will have to wait until April and the full first volume of Climate Change 2007 to judge how far the summary is really an accurate digest of the evidence – or, indeed, whether the full volume is itself altered on the grounds of political expediency. We can however already see that despite some clear political compromises and expressions of green pessimism, it is a more sober document than most of the reporting of it, or of climate change in general, would lead us to believe.

Comparing the forecasts

By contrast with the forecasts made by others, those essayed in the summary are quite circumspect. We can see this, briefly, in its treatment of temperatures, and at greater length in its treatment of ice and sea levels. The potential temperature rises projected in the summary are not dramatically different from those in the IPCC’s 2001 Third Assessment Report. The ‘best estimate’ made by the summary is that of a temperature rise of between 1.8º and 4.0º by 2100. It considers ‘unlikely’ changes of less than 1.1º or more than 6.4º. Already this confirms the mischievousness of Monbiot and Stern. They mention figures as high as 11.5º (13).

What about ice and the sea? Gore warns that if Greenland’s or the Antarctic’s ice melt, sea levels would rise by up to six metres. His maps show the inundation of Florida, San Francisco, Beijing, Calcutta and the Netherlands. The front page of the UK Independent goes further. Invoking the summary as ‘the final warning’, environmentalist writer Mark Lynas says that, with a temperature rise of 5.4º, ‘the entire planet will become ice-free, and sea levels will be 70 metres higher than today’ (14). How do Gore’s six and the Independent’s 70 metres compare with the summary? It considers a variety of scenarios in which no special policies are implemented to deal with greenhouse emissions. Its conclusion: by 2100, sea levels could rise by between 18 and 59 centimetres.

All this is an order of magnitude less pessimistic than Gore and the Independent. When the summary speculates about ‘virtually complete elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea level rise of about seven metres’, that is in the context of melting being sustained not to 2100, but for millennia (15). And the Antarctic? The summary does say that a net loss of ice mass could occur if ‘dynamical ice discharge’ dominates the ice sheet – in other words, if bits of ice break off rather than melt. But it precedes that observation with the point that current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet ‘will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and is expected to gain in mass due to increased snowfall’ (16).

Alarmists such as Gore make much of the recent suggestion that the world’s ice may be melting much more rapidly than previously thought. But once again the summary is more sober. It says: ‘Models used to date do not include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking. The projections include a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica at the rates observed for 1993-2003, but these flow rates could increase or decrease in the future.’ (17)

As for the newer studies, the summary suggests that increased melting might raise sea levels by between 10 and 20 centimetres. Larger values, it adds, cannot be excluded; but ‘understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise’ (18). All the most worrying scenarios for rises in sea levels rely on the melting of Greenland or Antarctic ice. As noted above, the IPCC suggests that such processes will take millennia. Gore, Monbiot and Stern and others claim that we should take seriously much shorter timescales. While the IPCC uses uncertainties about melting as a reason for withholding judgment, Stern, an economist, speculates that ocean warming and the acceleration of ice flows could lead to a ‘runaway discharge’ of ice.

As we have also seen, in 2001 the IPCC was merely 90 per cent confident that global warming had anthropogenic causes; but Stern chooses not to mention this. Instead, Stern arbitrarily bases himself on the chances of human extinction by the end of the century being almost 10 per cent; indeed, he maintains that that there was a weak case for them being ‘still higher’ (19). All of this degrades science. In the New Scientism, facts are cherry-picked always to show Fate and Doom. The content of the science barely gets a look-in. Nor, as we shall see, does humanity’s talent to devise technological solutions. But deeper even than this is the new tone of voice that now surrounds science. Let’s now look at how constant reference to a supposedly objective scientific ‘consensus’ works.

Consensus and catastrophe

First of all, science thrives on verification and falsifiability. Any consensus is always open to challenge – that is the spirit of the scientific method. Of course, there is a consensus that gravity exists and that the Earth is round. But in these cases we are talking about scientific principles that have been tested experimentally again and again over centuries. Climate science is not quite that definitive. Second, ideologues today use the idea of scientific consensus to address questions that are not scientific at all. The heart of the problem with today’s supposed consensus on climate science is not so much a false claim to knowledge of how climate works, as an assertion that such knowledge can tell us how to live our lives.

In this sense, the real consensus on climate change today is more political than scientific. It is a consensus that privileges emotional fears of loss, and which is based on apocalyptic thinking and doubt about humanity’s achievements and capabilities.

Today’s ‘consensus’ is extended, through media campaigns around something like the IPCC’s summary, into the language of climate catastrophe. On 2 February, BBC1’s One O’Clock News was typically alarmist, giving much airtime to a spokesperson from Friends of the Earth. Later, the same channel’s Ten O’Clock News led with a lengthy doom-laden report from around the world. Environment and science correspondent David Shukman described the Earth as ‘very fragile’, warning that it could ‘spiral out of control’ – an interesting concept! There would be a ‘devastating effect’ on the world, he said.

None of these phrases occur in the IPCC summary. Still, over on BBC2’s Newsnight, Gavin Esler announced that ‘2,500 experts agree – climate change could result in catastrophe’. Leaving aside the figure of 2,500 and that interesting word ‘could’, this could only suggest that the summary really talked about catastrophe. But it doesn’t.

Newsnight’s main report was from science editor Susan Watts, who informed us that ‘scientists have been saying for some time that the future looks bleak’. Perhaps so. But the IPCC summary did not say that the future was bleak. Watts’ presentation of the main findings was weak on science, but much stronger in terms of music (mournful) and computer graphics (spooky).

At the press launch of the summary, Dr Susan Solomon, a specialist in atmospheric science with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the drafting authors, was asked: ‘You’ve taken a clearly objective, neutral, scientific line in your presentation of the data. Could I ask you now to perhaps sum up what kind of urgency this report should convey to policymakers?’ Solomon gave the following reply: ‘I can only give you something that’s going to disappoint you, sir. And that is that it’s my personal, scientific approach to say that it’s not my role to try to communicate what should be done. I believe that is a societal choice. I believe science is one input to that choice, and I also believe science can best serve society by refraining from going beyond its expertise. So I do not feel that it would be in the best interests of society making this decision in the most responsible way for me to push for urgency or action.’

Luckily for the press, there was a non-scientist on the platform. While the BBC gave no coverage of Solomon’s statement, it did extend that courtesy to Achim Steiner. Steiner’s biography boasts of his ‘track record’ in ‘sustainable development policy and environmental management’, as well as his ‘firsthand knowledge of civil society, governmental and international organisations’. He, at least, provided a memorable soundbite: the summary had sent a ‘chill down my spine’, he proclaimed.

These kinds of emotional spasms on behalf of nature, it seems, justify any tactics. First, they allow a great amount of hysterical handwringing, not so much about climate as about the disreputable nature of mankind. Mark Lynas says: ‘[W]e are urged to buy more clothes, eat more exotic food, drive sportier cars, live vicariously through high-consuming celebrities like David Beckham, take more holidays in the sun, and ditch local food-producers.’ (20) Here, the everyday activities of human life are cast as trashing the planet, and activities that might be construed as enjoyable are caricatured as particularly trashy.

Second, the new, emotional tone surrounding science means that all dissent must be silenced. As Lynas says, ‘Get with the programme!’. Similarly, when the BBC belatedly reported that, along with many economists, many climate scientists – including those sympathetic to environmentalism – profoundly differed from Stern, that report was by no means given the prominence originally afforded the great New Labour knight. Instead of getting the full Panorama treatment, the critics could merely be heard on a new Radio 4 documentary series, The Investigation (21). For Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser, this is of no moment. The ‘case for action’, he says, is established ‘beyond any reasonable doubt for all but the most ardent or ill-informed sceptics’ (22). So that’s that.

The historical significance of the New Scientism

At first sight, the status now given science appears puzzling. After all, New Labour has only just woken up to the exodus from secondary and university physics, or the collapse of university chemistry. Chancellor Gordon Brown goes on about science, technology and innovation, but in 2005 the UK spent below two per cent of GDP on Research and Development (R&D) – less than the 2.1 per cent that it did in the early 1990s. Indeed, in 2005 the UK posted a poorer performance than the average for the EU 25 (including Eastern Europe) and the average for the OECD countries on R&D as a percentage of GDP; research jobs as a percentage of all jobs, and number of patent ‘families’ per thousand of population (23).

In the camp of environmentalism, too, science frequently gains a bad press. Environmentalists have succeeded in getting the EU to ban GM foods. They would seek to make nuclear physicists redundant, and are often contemptuous of those scientists who work for ‘Big Pharma’. Yet in the case of climate science, environmentalists love to refer to the work of bodies such as the IPCC – and ministers who normally do not invest much money or energy into the upkeep of science suddenly becomes spokespeople for scientific truth. Why?

It is important to realise that the New Scientism, like the old, is not about excessive respect for science. Rather, it is about deifying nature. Once nature is put before humanity, science becomes merely the winged, oracular messenger for nature, there to tell a dumb human species that it must have New Labour-style ‘awareness’ of how dumb it is. Greens may abjure the old, Cold War scientism of the RAND Corporation. Yet they have revived it. They use science for the purpose of encouraging us to adapt to lower horizons and expectations – in our lives here and now, and also for society in the future.

Human beings as Lilliputians

In climate science, we need better scholarship and fewer impulsive reactions. We also need to keep science open to debate, and not put it on a pedestal. Above all, we need to retain faith in human agency.

Today, the UK Department for Communities and Local Government trumpets its plans for Building Regulations that require all newly built homes to be ‘zero carbon’ by 2016 (24). Similarly, Friends of the Earth runs a suitably tasteful advertising campaign among students – funded, of course, by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – showing condoms covering a coal station chimney, a car exhaust and an aircraft engine (25). Everywhere, respectable environmentalist opinion likes to be seen as dynamic – as assuming the mantle of human agency, innovation and all that. In fact its campaigns implicitly deny human agency, or make it something problematic that needs to be reined in and controlled.

Invoking science that is in fact unread, like distorting it to have a go at humanity, shows that the new green-leaning elite has no conception of the progress mankind can achieve. For it, the future is what a frozen science makes happens to us, not what we, beginning with fertile scientific controversies, can make happen. It is as if the multiple improvements brought about by the Industrial Revolution never occurred.

All these 2007 visions of the same old world economy in 93 years time are as silly now as they would have been in 1907. The difference, however, is telling: by contrast with 1907, there is now just no confidence either that we can do any better, or that we should try to.

On top of physical science, mitigation and adaptation, no Working Group of the IPCC concerns itself with what we think is a third and superior option: humanising the planet through ambitious, broad-front technological transformations that would take dealing with anthropogenic global warming in their stride. Of course, for British environmentalism, any ambition in technology can only be corporate or neo-conservative hubris. If you differ from the Kyoto Agreement and instead suggest that solutions might involve space technologies, as the US has done, the Guardian will simply treat you to frontpage ridicule (26). Big or ambitious solutions are out, and instead for the New Scientism it is always and everywhere personal responsibility that counts – if you don’t even Try To Change Your Life, you’re even more damned than a (less hypocritical) denier.

This approach to science is not a new development in the discussion of climate change. Environmentalists and politicians are fixated by the science of climate change. Yet in practice this fascination is little more than a rhetorical device to tar opponents as driven by ideology and detached from reality. Rather than an argument over visions of the future, we are now told that nature has laid down strict limits to what we can expect, and that that is the end of the matter. Such an evasion of politics has had negative consequences both for society and for science. For society, it narrows down open discussion of what progress might mean, as contributions that deny natural limits are simply vetoed. For science, it has created a situation in which scientists are expected to make the case for governments.

Underneath a seemingly dynamic, progressive commitment to renewable energy, the New Scientism reveals an exhausted conception of human possibilities. Aeroplanes can never pollute less. Nuclear power can never be economic or safe. Science is an Old Testament God, and technology in the service of humanity has nothing to offer.

In Gulliver’s Travels, the 1726 satire of Jonathan Swift, the Lilliputians were an island race exercised by the most trivial matters. They were also just a few inches high. This is broadly the picture of mankind that the New Scientism would have us accept.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University. Joe Kaplinsky is a science writer.


Corrupting the curriculum, by Frank Furedi

‘Your planet needs you!’, by Rob Lyons

(1) IPCC, Summary for Policymakers, 2 February 2007

(2) Fiona Harvey, Scientists dispel global warming doubts, Financial Times, 3 February 2007

(3) UNEP director-general Achim Steiner, quoted in ibid.

(4) George Monbiot, Heat (Allen Lane, 2006), page xv.

(5) HM Treasury, Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, Part I, p38

(6) John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, Science and the retreat from reason, Merlin Press, 1995, pp176-7

(7) Quoted in Carbon ‘credit card’ considered, BBC News, 11 December 2006

(8) IPCC, Summary, op cit, p8.
(9) IPCC, Media advisory: IPCC adopts major assessment of climate change science

(10) Outline for the IPCC Working Group I contribution to The Fourth Assessment report: Climate change 2007: the physical science basis
(11) Outline for the IPCC Working Group III contribution to The Fourth Assessment report Climate change 2007: mitigation of climate change, and Outline for the IPCC Working Group II contribution to The Fourth Assessment report Climate change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability

(12) James Kanter and Andrew C Revkin, Last-minute wrangling on global warming report, International Herald Tribune, 1 February 2007

(13) Monbiot, op cit, p13; Stern, op cit, pp12-13.

(14) Mark Lynas, Global warming: the final warning, Independent, 3 February 2007

(15) IPCC, Summary, op cit, p13.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid, p11.

(18) Ibid.

(19) HM Treasury, Stern Review, op cit, Part I, pp 16, 47.

(20) Mark Lynas, High tide: news from a warming world (Harper Collins, 2004), pp296-7.

(21) Simon Cox and Richard Vadon, Running the rule over Stern’s numbers, BBC News, 26 January 2007

(22) David King, We cannot let the Kyoto debacle happen again, Observer, 4 February 2007

(23) OECD, Key figures from 2006/2 issue of Main Science and Technology Indicators

(24) Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Angela Smith, speech to the Forecasting for Construction conference 2007, 24 January 2007

(25) Friends of the Earth, Condoms turn students onto climate change, press release, 28 January 2007

(26) David Adam, US answer to global warming: smoke and giant space mirrors, Guardian, 27 January 2007

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