As someone who has stuck his neck out for the imminent reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in both his real and online life, it would be fitting for me to comment on the Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident (and as per usual, what was originally meant as a “comment” has blossomed into a long post). Anyhow, at least to me, the Climategate sage illustrates three things.
- Part of the “hockey stick” hypothesis – that pre-20th century global temperatures were essentially horizontal – is seriously challenged, perhaps sunk. However, contrary to denier rhetoric, the emails do not discredit AGW theory itself, nor do they lessen the magnitude of our current predicament, nor do they contain any hint of an overarching global conspiracy to enslave us under a green socialist NWO.
- Some academics form mafia-like cliques to promote themselves. Having many relatives and acquaintances who work in academia and have, at times, suffered from these cliques, these “revelations” are nothing new to me. Science stopped being purely about science ever since it evolved beyond the preserve of moneyed men with time to kill.
- It sheds far less light on the theory of AGW per se, than on some unsavory researchers and the AGW deniers (or “climate skeptics”) themselves. In particular, the ferocity with which the latter have latched on to the stolen emails as “proof” that AGW is a giant scam only testifies to their own paranoid desperation, but one that is disturbingly successful at swaying the public opinion. To the casual observer, this is further evidence for the intractability of our Limits to Growth dilemma; even “social capital”, i.e. the public’s tolerance for necessary but painful decisions, is growing short.
Why AGW is Real
Read my Top 10 AGW Denial Myths again. How often was the hockey stick graph mentioned? Just once – and furthermore, as half an answer. Based on this rough, but nonetheless fairly typical, example of pro-AGW arguments, the work of Mann at al was thus only responsible for, at best, 2.5% of the entire theory (remember that the late 20th-century temperature spike is still undisputed, it’s their suppression of the Medieval Warm Period that is discredited). There’s more on the matter from Real Climate here and here which gives a needed wider perspective, or see George Monbiot’s The Knights Carbonic for an easier and funnier read.
Contrary to the AGW denier position, amongst the “AGW consensus” that they love to deride, no-one is disputing that natural variability, usually accruing from fluctuations in solar irradiation, can account for spikes and troughs in the global climate well before the age of mass industrialism. That does not mean that humanity’s huge buildup of atmospheric CO2 is inconsequential; both theory and the current physical evidence indicate that the extra CO2, left to business-as-usual, will force the global climatic system into a hotter, more dynamic state (portents are already seen in the melting Arctic and crumbling infrastructure of the High North). As I wrote on another blog:
There are many models from respected scientific establishments indicating that a doubling of CO2 levels will lead to 5-6C global temperature rise (which as I understand it, are essentially based on solving a massive grid of heat equations in 3D – i.e., just physics, albeit with a large degree of uncertainty when applied to RL because we don’t know the coefficients with a high enough degree of precision). However, paleoclimate evidence concurs with the higher end predictions (5-6C) – our current atmospheric CO2 level of 384+ppm was last observed during the Pliocene 3mn years ago, when global temperatures soared by 3C. Since solar radiation was not substantially different from today then, this means that the kinds of projections made in the higher-end IPCC forecasts (or Arrhenius, for that matter) are likely valid.
Secondly, you point out that there may be powerful negative feedbacks and moderating factors, which are left out of the models due to their complexity. Yes, no-one disputes that. But the same holds for the opposite, e.g. a melting Arctic will reduce ice albedo and accelerate warming in the High North, which will in turn release more methane from the defrosting permafrost. Why do you think the negative feedbacks will be stronger than the positive ones? And what about the problem of global dimming which suggests that the real magnitude of global warming has been underestimated in the past decades because of the artificial cooling effect of increased aerosol emissions like soot and SO2 particulates?
Academia is a Mafia
Like in any bureaucracy where people compete for higher status and salary, there will form cliques dedicated to furthering the causes of their members. As bitter and vindictive scientific disputes throughout history prove, academia is far from the idyllic ivory tower paradise of popular imagination. I agree that the conduct of the researchers in question here is quite reprehensible, and sullies the reputation of the entire climate science community in the public eye. To show I’m honest, here’s a link to a skeptic (yes, a real skeptic, not a denier) sent me by a reader – Climategate and Scientific Conduct.
That said, academia remains a vital pillar of industrial civilization. It is a major driver of technological growth (which is at the root of almost all the secular increase in global carrying capacity) – and the institution which, because of its relative independence compared to most think-tanks, government agencies, or corporations, can provide the most effective “scanning” for possible solutions to our overshooting of the Earth’s carrying capacity.
However, nothing truly radical can be expected of academics, because they are part of the capitalist-industrialist System, its high priests, and cannot be expected to seriously challenge any of its core tenets. Quoting from this site’s introduction to my forthcoming book:
The latter category, encompassing private think tanks and academia, have a greater degree of freedom in asking questions. However, it is ultimately the state that pays academics their salaries. Biting the hand that feeds is always dangerous, especially if their fangs contain the poison of the forbidden question. Anathema unto them. Therefore, academia’s answers also tend to conform to the reigning paradigm – or even reinforce it further with elaborate universal theories such as Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” eschatology, which alleges that Western liberal democracy is the final phase of mankind’s ideological evolution.
Academia are an essentially conservative body. The IPCC relies on consensus and generally excludes the most controversial and “pessimistic” research from its reports, of which there are more and more of, mostly focusing on the positive feedback loops that could “tip” the world over into a runaway global warming of 5C+, a degree of warming (no pun intended) that will make widening swathes of the Earth simply physically uninhabitable and will almost certainly spell the end for industrial civilization.
The Real Problem
- World unity – to prevent the climate and resource wars which will otherwise become inevitable, and to prevent nations from free-riding on others’ sacrifices.
- Social leveling – forcefully stymieing growth under capitalism amounts to an extremely regressive tax, which the people won’t stand for – at least in liberal democracies*.
- Bigger state – to promote anti-industrial values in favor of older, communal values; to enforce social leveling / economic coercion; and to co-opt or destroy alternate sources of political power (be they multi-national corporations, terrorists, religious leaders, etc) that could challenge the worldwide green agenda.
And yes, I realize that this all sounds pretty creepy and Orwellian. This is one respect in which the deniers really do have a point, so if they suspect that the “elites” have this objective in mind, no wonder they are so fervent in opposing AGW theory with such a blatant disregard for logic and facts. But what the deniers haven’t noticed that no-one in government or even mainstream journalism is calling for the above measures, which I by now believe are the only way to possibly avert catastrophe a few decades down the road. Some policy-makers may well be aware of humanity’s predicament, but are simply too imprisoned by public opinion to ever dare voice it out aloud.
* Pursuing carbon emissions reduction mechanisms under the capitalist-industrial System, as currently proposed, is not going to work at any level. In particular, the idea of doing carbon rationing by introducing a virtual parallel currency inter-changeable with real money is unrealizable – it is extremely regressive, and unlikely to pass in democracies (and if does will breed social instability – if you make the cost of carbon high enough to have any substantial impact). Furthermore, nation-states are not going to risk implementing such drastic measures within their borders unless most other states are doing it – otherwise, it would be too hard to convince their electorates that the effort, which is in the end futile (due to non-compliance and free-riding), is worth it. Note that cooperation in a multi-player game like this is exceedingly hard, and no state will want to be the first to take the plunge. These psychological factors spell doom for any attempt at national cap-and-trade or international contraction-and-convergence.
Climategate: The Death of Social Capital
Perhaps at a subconscious level people really do realize our predicament, and after all, denial is the first phase of recovery (though in all fairness, some have moved on to bargaining – “geoengineering, markets, technology, aliens!”, while others have even advanced onto the depressive state – “it’s so bad it’s too late to do anything anyway”). But mostly, it’s still anger and denial. Around 59% of Britons, to be precise, to whom populist blowhards like James Delingpole cater to (together with the stunningly ignorant and Russophobic Tim Collard; I think Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is the Telegraph‘s only good columnist).
Speaking of Russia, Russia Today has latched onto this story, seeing a good market for those Anglo-Saxons frustrated with their “globalist”, “NWOish” media (in some ways, a funny fit, though on second thought quite logical). Furthermore, it’s also well known that Russia is one of the few countries, along with Canada, to benefit from global warming, as I pointed out in Towards a New Russian Century? So perhaps the Kremlin has given signals to its media to downplay AGW? To be honest, I doubt it – frankly, I doubt the Russian government’s strategic vision is that good. But it’s food for thought.
Below is an interview with a frothing Alex Jones.
And another one featuring a debate between Aleksey Kokorin (pro-AGW), the WWF’s Climate Program Coordination in Russia, and Piers Corbyn (anti-AGW), a maverick British weather forecaster. Watch it, it gets quite heated in the end.
[Kokorin is incorrect that there was no malaria in Russia prior to the period of accelerated global warming - it was a major scourge, during summer when even Siberia became very warm due to its continental landmass, prior to eradication efforts in the 1930's. However, both the scope and duration of the region of malarial danger has increased substantially since the 1990's in Russia, and almost all GW forecasts project an increase in malarial infestation. Unfortunately, Kokorin has a very poor interview technique and spends most of his time appealing to authority, which just happens to be under question after Climategate. Corbyn comes across as a loon. But I suspect more people will believe him regardless.]
Anyhow, why am I showcasing this denier propaganda? To illustrate how individuals acting for their own individual, corporate, or national gain, are free to pander to the fears and sensibilities of electorates to forestall the necessary changes and to tar those pushing for them, even just by association (as pointed out, the damage to the public’s perception of the pro-AGW will be far out of proportion to the actual damage on its internal consistency / validity, which is pretty minimal). This is not an indictment of democracy, except perhaps by implication; just an observation.
5. Climategate: A Turning Point in the Malthusian Loop?
Furthermore, this illustrates another facet of our Limits to Growth predicament. At least in their modeling, the authors stuck to quantitative aspects such as the resource base, the production base, the agricultural base, pollution, services, etc. One of the major things they neglect, however, is the socio-political side of things – the “social capital” that sustains political legitimacy, especially important for liberal democracies that only have limited coercive tools at their disposal.
Real living standards have grown slowly, for some income groups even stagnated, since the 1970′s. Some attribute this to the pernicious influence of neoliberalism; I see it as one of the earliest expressions of approaching limits, of which the 2008 economic crisis is part and parcel (global energy production stopped growing exponentially from the 1970′s). At this point of the “Malthusian Loop” (see my article The Belief Matrix), the hoi polloi are becoming disillusioned, even restless.
Before the industrial era, all societies were subject to Malthusian dynamics in which population growth saturated the carrying capacity of the land and leveled off at an unstable plateau. The period of high growth was typically regarded as a Golden Age of bucolic virtue (e.g. republican Rome), which I’ve labeled The Rise of Empire. Because of limits to growth, this could not last. Subsistence stress resulted in the growth of cities and large standing armies to soak up the landless poor, and literate bureaucrats to manage the new problems. Paradoxically, even as problems loomed on the horizons many aspects of culture like literacy, inventiveness, etc, flourished. This is because society encouraged its thinkers to “scan” for solutions to these problems. [Society moves towards down on the Belief Matrix, towards "Rationalism" / "The Idea of the West"].
However, these same cities and intelligentsia fuel feelings of resentment on the part of peasants on account of a) their perceived decadence and lasciviousness and b) the fact that said degenerates are supported by their taxes. To accommodate the rising reaction and diminishing surpluses, politicians and kings are forced to go back to the future. Way back. [There is a reaction against "Rationalism", and society moves up along the Belief Matrix towards "Mysticism"]. Quoting from my notes on Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:
At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.
… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.
Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:
Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …
… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.
In other words, society begins by rejecting the “Idea of the West” (in Roman times, proxied by “rule of law” and Greek scientific-rationalism), and the state intensifies efforts to both legitimize itself and coerce people into believing in it. But nonetheless, a breaking point is eventually reached and society loses faith in the state (hitherto, tradition), culminating in the collapse of civilization, a prolonged period of anarchy and reversion to older forms of social existence focused on family, clan and community (denoted as The Collapse of Civilization).
Mark Lynas bewails the war on science in Leaked emails mark dangerous shift in climate denial strategy.
And the strategy is simple. Given that scientists are one of society’s most trusted groups (unlike journalists or politicians), the climate denial movement has begun a battle to undermine public trust in climate scientists themselves. No more will the legions of anonymous researchers who collect and interpret data from meteorological stations, satellites and ice cores be considered above the fray – they now run the risk of personal attacks, exposure of their private lives and vilification.
It is important to understand the significance of this. Scientists are not politicians. They are not used to communicating publicly. They trust in their objectivity, the objectivity of their peers, and the rigour of only citing work published in learned journals. They will have private views, but are very used to keeping these out of their work – indeed the entire scientific method is based on conducting research which can be replicated by peers in order to check its accuracy and objectivity.
Like the 9/11 conspiracy theories before it, the global warming conspiracy is palpably absurd. The idea that scientists have teamed up with governments and the United Nations to foist some kind of social control project on an unwary public is laughable – it would need conspiratorial activities involving thousands of people, for a start..
None of this would matter if the public weren’t fooled. But they are. Polls show climate “scepticism” is rising, perhaps even to a majority position, on both sides of the Atlantic. Presumably public trust in climate change scientists is falling commensurately. This will in turn undermine consensus in mitigating climate change – which is of course the very intention of the deniers in the first place.
I expect an intensification of the war on science in the decades ahead. Climategate proves just how shallow “social capital” really is. Is there an economic crisis? Too bad, let’s stimulate the economy with even more debt-driven spending and forget those pesky greens (too bad we’ll see more and more peak oil-driven economic crises in the future, the next one probably in 2011-12). Is there at least one group of ethically-challenged climate researchers? Too bad, let’s dismiss all of them. With attitudes like this, it is impossible to surmount our Limits to Growth predicament.
The strongmen who will replace internationalist liberal democracy before the final demise of industrial civilization will have little interest in people even asking the wrong questions, let alone venturing the correct answers. Those that don’t toe the party line, be they high priests or peasant grunts, will be strung up, the old order purged and overthrown. “Scanning” will end. The show may be fun to watch, though increasingly dangerous.
What is to be Done?
Lynas ends his piece with this limp-wristed plea:
We have to start accentuating the positive, rather than constantly invoking apocalypse. Getting off fossil fuels is a necessity, but that does not mean that people’s lives must be made harder or more austere. Forget all the “war economy” analogies, locally grown jam and appeals to save old clothes. Our message needs to be a forward-looking one of hope, prosperity and technological progress.
Unfortunately, I am almost 100% certain this will not work. The AGW movement thrives on (justified) alarmism. Forsaking this, especially at this late stage of the game, will only serve to relegate the issues to the backburner (until it burns us all). If it hadn’t been for their depictions of fiery Hell, the high priests of any civilization wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective at preventing sin, or legitimizing the state that made both sins and high priests possible. (In a collapsed anarchy, there is neither).
Revolutions aren’t made by sissies, not when the people themselves are against the revolutionaries anyway. We must press on and attack, undermine the capitalist-industrial System in every way possible. (Necessary disclaimer: legally, of course). The time for waiting, for pointless Earth Days and meaningless street solicitations for Greenpeace, or for green Gramscian subversion to show results, is past. The hour is late. Green socialism must be pursued with Bolshevik fervor.