Category Archives: climate

Hit the Fossil Fuel Industry Where it Hurts: Science

There was another one of those International Panel on Climate Change reports published last weekend. Having already outlined the physical science basis back in September (i.e. it is happening, yes, really, we triple-checked, sorry), and then a report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability at the end of last month (i.e. it’s going to get really shit), we had a third on mitigation (i.e. there’s stuff we can do to stop it being really, really, really shit).

WWF’s Leo Hickman summarised the reports neatly with the simple nugget: “Climate change is real. We are to blame. It will get worse if we fail to act. The solutions are available and affordable. But time is short.” If that’s still too long to digest, he also offers an extra-short version: “Please. Get. On. With. It.” And if you want it in the words of a scientist, here’s Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London: “We should stop wringing our hands and just get on with it.”

Even before this most recent intervention, after the adaption report, activist Bill McKibben, suggested that the time had come for scientists to strike: “At this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more. Work with what you’ve got. We’re a quarter-century ahead – when you deal with the trouble we’ve already described then we’ll tell you what’s coming next.”

I like this idea. But even if you could inspire climate scientists to down tools (good luck…) I suspect it would be a misplacement of our energies. As is often the case, people not listening to the science acts as a distraction from other aspects of the political debate, including what science itself is up to.

Desmond Tutu’s call last week for an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet was rousing, and it reminded me of something Hilary and Steven Rose wrote about Israel. Hit them where it hurts: Science.

The fossil fuel industry is often described as anti-science. Although undoubtably bits of the fossil fuel industry are what might be dubbed anti bits of science, they are also heavily dependant on other areas of it too. Public structures of science and engineering train staff for the oil and gas industry, they also help develop new techniques, provide cultural credibility and open social spaces within which to lobby. Too few climate campaigners appreciate the activity that goes on here, not nearly enough political activism and political light is shone on it. The industry itself knows it though, and so keeps aspects of science and engineering very close indeed.

Not for nothing did Shell sign a collaborative research framework with Cambridge, and a Memo of Understanding with the NERC. Not for nothing are EDF sponsoring the Cheltenham Science Festival. Not for nothing is the next President of Imperial a board director at Chevron. Not for nothing is the list of industrial sponsors at the Heriot-Watt Institute of Petroleum Engineering quite so long. Not for nothing does the National Centre for Universities and Business’ latest report devote several pages to BP. This is just the tip of the speedily melting iceberg though. For more, I can recommend the Knowledge and Power report 350.org, People and Planet and Platform put together last autumn (the bit after they talk about divestment, which really is only a small part of the story).

Just as Mariana Mazzucato tells us everything smart in the smart phone was funded by the state, a lot of the oil and gas industry is supported by publicly funded science. With the case of smart phones, we might ask why are we selling our work so short, but when it comes to fossil fuels, we might ask why are we giving it to them at all? One of the key ways in which the extractive industries are able to not only operate, but actively extend those operations is through their involvement in the structures of publicly funded science. If you want to act on climate change, it is worth considering this. Rather than beating people ever-more over the head with climate science and going off in a strop when they don’t listen, if we want action on climate change, we need to cut off the science and engineering the fossil fuel industry relies upon.

Unlocking the ties between science and fossil fuels involves remembering one simple point about science: It is a social system. This idea is sadly tarred with the idea that if something is socially constructed it is somehow not real. It’s fun for the odd philosophy seminar, but it’s also largely bollocks. Just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t also real. St. Paul’s was constructed by society, but it still hurts me if I kick it. Understanding science as a social system merely means reflecting on the fact that it is both directed by society and does more than just make research. It isn’t to deny science in anyway, only to want to make it work better.

Science as a social system has outputs other than just research. I don’t just mean spin-off products. It offers social situations for people to network. It offers events upon which we can pin larger social debate (IPCC reports, for example, or papers, conferences, festivals). It has a lot of cultural capital too. A recent study of public attitudes to science found 90% said they trusted scientists working for universities. That is very, very high (no wonder Centrica wanted academic scientists to do the talking for them). And it trains people. Because of the way science is constituted, with a lot of junior (cough, cheap, cough) researchers at the bottom, most PhD students won’t stay in academia. They’ll go elsewhere, including the oil and gas industry.

Another element of this social system to remember is that some bits of science are funded and others aren’t. Choices are made over what studies get done. Some science is designed to have particular applications, some is more curiosity-driven. This is ok. The problem is when limited set of people get to direct what we are doing so the social systems at work is run to serve a rather narrow interests. It’s not just how big the science budget is, it is what you do with it that counts. This is a problem Canadian scientists have learnt the hard way, as whole areas of environmental research have very strategically been cut. It is also why it is worrying when the NERC/ Shell memo of understanding includes agreements to ‘Influence academic behaviour by articulating Shell long-term research’ especially when NERC centres already contain references to extracting oil and gas from polar regions.

We’re crap at discussing any of this. It is too easily dominated by fantasyland complaints that ‘no one should interfere in science,’ ignoring the fact that many people already do. We have to recognise the politics here, because it is quietly happening under our noses. Last year’s BIS/ DECC oil and gas strategy is possibly the most brazen example of this. Aside from a bit where the government agrees to consider its role in improving public perception of the UK oil and gas industry (apparently we incorrectly perceive it as unsustainable and deflecting progress towards a greener UK economy, silly us), the strategy expresses much concern over the supply of skilled staff and R&D spend in the sector, with a clear expectation that the government should support industry here. But no one much critised the government about this strategy when it was published. I doubt many people knew it existed.

This week Caroline Lucas asked a parliamentary question about NERC’s oil and gas innovation programme. She didn’t get much of an answer, but these are the sorts of questions green activists – and scientists themselves – need to be asking more often. The oil and gas industry needs our science to operate. We don’t need to give it to them. Sorting this out is just one of those things we need to be getting on with.

This was first published on New Left Project.

“We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

The UK Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander recently claimed the new government energy bill cutting plan was a “win, win” policy.

But can there really be any such thing as a win-win policy when it comes to energy? Because even putting aside specific scepticism about the UK context of that line, the simplistic binary of ‘win-win’ limits the sorts of questions, perspectives and expectations we might have about energy policy. It glosses over the diversity of people within such groups and the diversity of ideas or impacts they might have. There are more people on the planet, and more people yet to be born in the planet to consider than simply those charging and playing bills in one country today. There also other businesses, other ways people interact with energy than simply bills, other ideas, other frames, other ways we might weight our concept of winning.

As Sujatha Raman, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham, said when I asked for questions to take with me to the Nobel Dialogue: ‘Can we have affordable uninterrupted energy supply (the International Energy Agency’s definition of energy security) without the exploitation of somebody somewhere?‘

With that in mind, one of the most interesting themes I saw emerge in the Nobel Prize Dialogue was discussion of difference. As Chris Llewellyn Smith, Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, started off his discussion on energy outlooks: ‘We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way.’ On a very simple level, some people are getting to use more energy than others. There are big emitters, who also get the value of these emissions, and low ones, who simply don’t have access to such value.

Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, stressed issues of difference perhaps most of all the introductory morning talks. As well as making a moral case for a pro-poor global energy strategy with drive to even out access to energy resources, he outlined some of the complexities of the global energy market, showing that what is true for one country is very different for another. He also stressed change; difference over time. Or, as he put it, the ‘job descriptions of key energy players are being re-written’. Countries which had previously been major energy importers are being significant energy exporters. There’s the US and its so-called shale gas ‘revolution’ but also Brazil, which is becoming a significant exporter due to the impact of two major policies – increasing production, but also pushing biofuels – which are quite different from the picture we’ve seen in America. Conversely, more established energy exporter countries are looking for new markets, largely in Asia. Back to the pro-poor dimension, he also discussed how divergent prices for energy are in different countries (gas is cheaper in the US than in Asia) and how this price differential provides an important dimension for different economies. Above all, perhaps, Birol stressed the role of subsidies to change to appearance of energy prices, especially in terms of picking between energy choices: ‘For me, fossil fuel subsidies are number one public enemy of sustainable energy development’ as governments are putting money from their own citizens to push the price of fossil fuels down, encouraging us to use them in a wasteful manner.

We also heard a moving speech from the UN’s Richenda Van Leeuwen outlining why increased energy access is so important; not just in terms of fuelling economic growth and improving lives by opening up new possibilities but also to save people, especially women, from the sorts of energies they current rely on. Fuels that cause burns. Fuels that choke. Fuels which put young women in danger of rape if they go out to collect firewood.

What we hadn’t heard much of however – at least by lunchtime when I wrote this – was the impact of climate change on poorer parts of the world. References to poverty are often used in calls for greater use of one energy or another – and it was indeed mentioned by BP’s Carl-Henric Svanberg in his address at the start of the dialogue – but unless the views of the people in the countries you are talking about are discussed, with full inclusion of concerns about the impacts of climate change too, it seems a bit like empty rhetoric. I’m totally in agreement with Van Leeuwen about this element of the energy challenge, but I can’t help thinking that if we in the west really want to take the well-being of the rest of the world seriously, some sort of sense of their ‘growth’ is going to have to give. And pro-poor rhetoric from the likes of BP looks a bit crass. Because I still have hope that Raman’s wrong and that we don’t need to exploit people for energy, but we might have to change how we live our lives, and recognise how much exploitation it is built upon.

A postnote though: As Christof Rühl (also of BP) noted in his talk on energy outlooks, we’re seeing a convergence in fossil fuel mix, and this is a big deal because for the first time in human history, we don’t have a dominant fuel. Maybe there’s a sign of hope for change there, even if the use of non-fossil fuel options are still way behind.

Science Says So. Sorta

This was my September column for Popular Science UK (subscribe to read current edition) and so written before the fuss over the IPCC report. I think it’s still relevant though.

“Gravity exists. The Earth is round. Climate change is happening. Science says so.” Or rather Obama’s twitter account says so. Those last three words were collected together as #ScienceSaysSo to be precise; a tag which not only passed around virtually, but soon ended up on placards.

Science itself was somewhat co-opted into a bit of political campaigning on climate change here. Because unlike the PR staff supporting the President of the United States, science rarely speaks in one voice. It’s naïve, if not disingenuous, to suggest it might.

We get nodes of agreement which will sometimes coalesce into ideas we’ve decided it is either silly or dangerous to bother to argue against. But few scientists are arrogant enough to really think they unquestionably know. There’s always disagreement and uncertainty; that’s the lifeblood of good science. This can make scientists frustrating to work with for politicians, journalists or anyone else who wants a ‘straight’ answer. But science doesn’t tend to deal in truths, but rather hypothesis which aim ever closer to a description of reality.

Indeed one of the things science (or at least a key scientific institution) says is “nullius in verba.” Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it”, this is the motto of the Royal Society, right there in a very pretty stained glass window in their HQ. They named a minor planet after it too. If we’re playing slogans, rather than #ScienceSaysSo, our most august scientific institutions would rather suggest we avoid listening to dogma.

None of this is to suggest anything goes and you shouldn’t listen to what scientists say. On the climate issue, for example, the clearest introduction I’ve seen talks very openly about different areas of where there are different amounts of uncertainty; points where they are quite confident and others where they are less so. There is, for example, very little uncertainty that climate change due to increased greenhouse gases is happening and that, in future, it is very likely to have significant impacts for human life. But there are many uncertainties when it comes to the size and details of such impacts. Combining climate modelling with knowledge of effects already observed can powerfully improve our predictions, but they are still predictions even if they are the best we have. Its fair to characterise science – in as much as we can ever talk about it as a whole – as thinking climate change is happening.

I can understand people like Obama’s PR team want to simply shout “but we just KNOW this can we all move on already?”

It’s also worth noting that in many ways the whole “nullius” thing is a bit out-dated. Because modern science is a large, team enterprise. One expert needs to rely on the knowledge of several others in order to have time to concentrate of their own little bit of the world. As Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying, his insight was only gained by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Modern science, for all that draws on an origin myth of having a look for yourself, runs on trust.

Just as disagreement and uncertainty are the lifeblood of good science, so is believing other people and drawing on their expertise as a useful resource, because if we had to had to learn everything for ourselves we’d never get anything done. Most people who self-identify as sceptics openly admit to targeting their scepticism in some way.

The Royal Society knows this. Their website explains the motto as “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment”. It just means claims should be testable backed up with empirical evidence.

There was an approach to science education popular briefly in the 1970s called “discovery learning”. Loosely, this was based on the idea that children should be allowed to discover nature for themselves, it’s wrong to indoctrinate them with the beliefs of the previous generation and it’s a more powerful learning experience if they can uncover it for themselves. Except, as many educational researchers pointed out, this only works in as much as one believes that scientific research is as simple as an hour spent playing around in a classroom.

Ethnographers who studied what went on in such classrooms soon saw teachers heavily orchestrating what were called “experiments” but were really nearer demonstrations; setting up particular outcomes and accommodating results which did not fit scientific censuses. Because the teachers knew years of detailed scientific study applying more rigorous techniques and equipment were more reliable than what their students were doing, they explained away anomalies.

That’s not to say young people can’t be involved in real science-in-the-making (e.g. recent papers on bees and elephants) but let’s not be naïve about how much they have to take for granted, or simply bracket off, in order to do so.

Precisely because empiricism is so powerful, we shouldn’t use it naively. To return to the climate example, earlier this year Boris Johnson implied he knew global warming wasn’t happening because, as “an empiricist”, he could see the snow with his own eyes. In response, several senior scientists calmly pointed out that they shared this interest in precisely what was going on with our weather and climate and that is why they try to apply slightly more effort, knowledge and techniques than simply looking out the window.

This is as true for us as citizens living in a modern society as it is for a working scientist, school student or London Mayor. You can’t simply re-create all the scientific and technological expertise we rely for yourselves. Or you could, but your life would be a lot less comfortable. To take the various benefits of science and technology, we have to be open to trust other people.

So, in a way, Obama’s PR team are fair to suggest we listen that #ScienceSaysSo. Science says things to itself, and the wider world, and it’s good that we can benefit from its expertise by listening.

Except trust breaks down and has to be earned. Simply reasserting respect my authoritah – Eric Cartman dressed in a labcoat – is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. It’s also, all too often, totally valid. Politicians refer quite loosely to scientific evidence all the time, and even scientific institutions are not above briefing a particular slant on an issue which concerned citizens might find useful to unpick (e.g. on fracking). The scepticism over BSE may have spilled over into framings of MMR in ways which were dangerous and arguably quite misapplied, but that doesn’t mean scepticism over what the politicians were saying on the science of BSE was a bad idea, just that we should have taken a more nuanced view on MMR. Just because scepticism can be misplaced and even deliberately exploited doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing.

It is, annoyingly, up to us to decide what scientific advice and which sceptics we find the most compelling; respecting evidence but also that it’s not, on it’s own, enough to make a decision. This is hard. But then modern life is hard.

Oh, and Mr President, the Earth isn’t round either. Science has been known to say that too. Sorry.

Disinvesting unis: Tip of the speedily-melting iceberg

A new form of climate change activism has been speedily flying through American Universities the last year. And it’s coming to Europe. It’s interesting partly just to see people caring about climate change again, but whether this fits your own political interests or not, it’s also because of the particular approach it takes – disinvestment – which suggests some new public interest in the way we plan and organise science.

Disinvestment is, quite simply, the opposite of investment. The campaign invites students to think about their universities as financial institutions – not just sites for learning, research or socialising – and ask questions about where their universities invest their large endowments. There is some history of this with respect to South Africa under apartheid and the tobacco industry, and focusing on pension funds rather than money held by universities, but this quantity of activity on fossil fuel disinvestment is reasonably new.

Seeded in universities, it has broadened to the financial clout of cities and religious institutions too, even (slightly embarrassingly) the endowments of green NGOs. Last July, American environmentalist Bill McKibben published a long, thorough and impassioned article in Rolling Stone entitled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math outlining what was described as “three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe”. This was followed by a Rolling Stone sponsored tour of campuses across the states entitled “Do the Math”.

The focus of the rhetoric has very much been the idea that this is all simply a matter of the logical application of a few numbers; the maths of how climate change is happening (scientific) and the maths of how it might be solved (economic). This is somewhat of an illusion, as the bulk of this work is politics. The tour might have featured “after-math” parties (yeah, really) but this was a space for local groups could organise, not a chance to get your squared paper out. The tour bus itself contained what McKibben calls, in a follow up Rolling Stone piece in February, “a bevy of progressive heroes” author Naomi Klein, indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, filmmaker Josh Fox, Hip Hop Caucus founder Lennox Yearwood. McKibben also argued that universities were the places to start such activity because they were where we found out about global warming, and that the contain communities who understand the maths. He’s forgetting that they are social spaces where, unusually people of different countries and different generations come together. That’s important for climate change, which is an issue with unusually large global and temporal reach.

When I was first told about plans to move this campaign to the Europe, I was sceptical it’d work. It’s not that people aren’t interested, just that our universities are just funded differently, without quite the same endowments. So I was impressed with the way the idea has been redeveloped and extended by People and Planet. They start with a sort of “Move your money” approach of demanding universities screen for and exclude the fossil fuel industry from their investment portfolio (or perhaps move “our” money, which is why the campaigns have traction). However, they go on to focus on the other forms of capital universities hold. There is the symbolic cultural and social capital such institutions can offer through honorary degrees or sponsorship of events and student societies. Perhaps most importantly is the way in which certain industries (not just energy) have been able to capture the energies of our scientists and engineers. So People and Planet are also asking UK higher education to work harder at offering students with more diverse careers advice, refocus research to climate solutions rather than fossil fuel research and, perhaps most importantly of all, demand more research funding for renewables.

They started with a protest for the opening of the University of Oxford’s “Shell Geoscience Laboratory” along with a letter in the Guardian from angry graduates (alumni being a useful form of political pressure as universities increasingly try to fundraise and market themselves through them).

This new Shell laboratory is just tip of the speedily-melting iceberg though, and whatever your own views on fossil fuels, this protest draws attention to the ways in which collaborations like this are commonplace. The People and Planet campaign invites us to at least notice such use of universities, and have a think about whether it’s pulling our public resources in the directions we want.

Last summer, BP announced it would invest £64 million to set up an International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM) based at the University of Manchester. The Telegraph had a lovely headline with “BP invests in UK research to help it drill deeper” but Nature News was perhaps slightly more astutely on the money with their observation that as corporate research-and-development labs wither, many are turning to campuses to fill their research needs. Universities seem quite happy for their spaces to be used in such ways. Indeed, they are being encouraged to as our funding system is increasingly being pushed to favour matched funding (for example). This gets played as a mix of “but we need our limited funds to be topped up” and “collaboration is good” but it limits you to only asking questions that serve interests of those who have money.

Academics like to kick up a fuss about need to stand up for “blue skies” research in the face of corrupting directional research, but this is of the most pernicious red herrings in science policy. Because it’s good to direct bits of research – and we’ve been routinely doing it for years – the question is how and where.

As well as funding policies, there are corporate members of the research council peer review colleges (i.e. people who get to decided what research gets funded by public money). This is a good thing. BAE, Shell, Pfizer et al contain some great expertise worth tapping into. They also help the academy lift ideas out of itself a bit, stop it being too closed minded. But if we’re drawing on industry, there are other external experts we could draw on too. To put this in some context, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s peer review college (pdf) contains thirty members from BAE systems (in comparison, there are eighteen from the University of Sussex).

We should also remember softer influences, like the ability of larger companies to buy space at careers fairs (and this runs right down to the careers advice we give primary schoolchildren). There’s also the sponsorship of events for senior academics and policy makers and it’s increasingly common to find universities have devoted offices to corporate partnership (e.g. Imperial’s members and UCL’s).

Whatever your personal view on whether we should keep fossil fuels in the ground or not, we should welcome any greater interest in the politics and ethics of what we do with the resources held by our universities; their people, their ideas, their hard work, their money, their histories and social credibility.

If you believe that science and technology has power to change the world (I do) it’s worth keeping an eye on which particular visions of the future it’s structured by.

 

This was first published in the June edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the August edition’s piece on health data. See their new educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).

Climate, scepticism and conspiracy

ecologistEcologist cartoon, from article about the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment (vol.2, no.10, p.9)

Everyone has a friend who thinks global warming is just a big conspiracy to put up taxes and tell you what to do. Maybe you’re one of those friends yourself.

You are in a minority if so, at least nationally (and internationally) speaking. You might well be friends with other people who share that view, so it’d be normal with certain groups. Climate scepticism is complex and variable – and usually an awful lot more than a conspiracy theory – but the majority of people believe climate change is real. To take one recent survey of the UK public, only 13% felt climate change was not happening. That study cites others if you fancy digging around for more. Try Eurobarometer or Pew, for example.

Still, the conspiracy idea is common enough that the old USA Today cartoon “what if it was a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” has become a depressing cliché of PowerPoint presentations on environmental issues. Most people may not take the conspiracy theories seriously, but many who work in climate communication and policy still find the view significant enough to bother pointing and laughing (or better, actually worry and think about).

I saw a talk a few months ago from Kevin Anderson which turned the usual climate change conspiracy theory on its head. You can watch a video of an almost identical talk Anderson gave at the University of Bristol last year (there’s also a pdf transcript there). He suggested many scientists and policy-makers  routine underplay their public statements on climate change; doing what many sceptics accuse them of, but in reverse. The 2 degree target so often referred to in climate policy discussions is not consistent with science, he argued, and scientists should be standing up and saying so. Anderson isn’t suggesting that scientists sat secretly planning to keep people in the dark, all in the pay of [insert your own bogeyman] (he did apply the Chatham House rule at one point, but I wouldn’t read too much into that, sometimes bits of secrecy is necessary as part of the course of opening up truths). More simply, his point is that forms of understatement have become an unchallenged part of the course for much discourse on climate targets.

Anderson’s no crank. I trust him. But that doesn’t mean I simply believe him. I also trust many of the people he is complaining about too. And so I doubt him and them. I’m confused. I think this a pretty normal state of affairs to be in. But it’s disorientating too.

Doubt is a powerful thing, whoever casts it or why, especially in complex societies like ours which run on large amounts of trust. Sociologists talk about “civil inattention” as a way in which we “do modernity”; simply bracket off and ignore interacting with large parts of our lives just to get on with them. This can quickly unravel at times of crisis though. We trusted, for example, that food labeled beef came from cows, not horses, until that particular scandal broke. Most of us probably didn’t bother to even think that that there were institutions put in place that regularly check that the food we eat is what it says it is, or that such bodies had been struggling with threats of cuts, or that we’ve been doing this kind of gradually more institutionalised checking of the validity of food for hundreds of years. We had other things to worry about. We can see similar patterns of the breaking down of trust with BSE, libor and a host of other topics we’ve relied on technical expertise and found it wanting.

Scepticism can be very positive. Indeed, it powers a lot of scientific work: “Nullius in Verba” and all that (take no one’s word for it, the Royal Society’s motto). People even take up scepticism as a form of hobby, with networks of “sceptics in the pub” meetings. In a recent speech at the Royal Society, Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, used this idea of science’s inherent sceptism as a basis for arguing it’s strength: “Good science is questioning, sceptical, analytical – testing theories and understanding risks. Two hundred years of good science – teasing out uncertainties, considering risk – has laid the foundation of what we now understand. It screams out from decade upon decade of research”.

However, doubt can also make science vulnerable, especially when combined with the everyday inattention most people give the details of scientific expertise. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway show in their book Merchants of Doubt, the natural uncertainty at heart of science has been deliberately amplified by the tobacco and petrol industries. As this short video on the topic argues, it was assumed the public can’t understand the complex nature of climate science (or tobacco’s link to cancer) so it would be relatively easy to convince them the scientists don’t know either (and that without “sound” solid science, it would be wrong to take preventative measures).

Back to Professor Anderson’s suggestion of a sort of alternative conspiracy theory. A paper in the journal Global Environmental Change potentially provides some depth to this (write up without paywall at Skeptical Science). Contrary to the oft-made criticism that climate scientists are alarmist, they argue that many seemed to err on the side of least drama. The researchers stress that restraint is a community norm in science, leading many scientists to be cautious, understated and moderate in their public statements. They also recount ways in which there may have been an extra “chill” exerted on climate scientists due to dogged actions from sceptics. As the paper concludes, in attempting to avoid drama, the scientific community may actually be biasing their own work in a way.

Roger Pielke Jr reviewed this paper rather unfavorably, laughing at its faux-science approach of referring to “erring on the side of least drama” as “ESLD”, like it’s a disease, chemical or something similarly intricate. Moreover, Pielke argues their methodology for proving that scientists were under-dramatising was less than robust. I agree with much of Pielke’s critique, but I don’t think this issue is easy to garner evidence on, and I don’t think Pielke has any robust evidence it is not happening either. Considering what scientists such as Anderson (and others mentioned in that paper, notably James Hason) have to say, I think it’s worth studying further.

Anderson and the people behind the “erring on the side of least drama” paper might well be wrong, but I think it’s worth asking more questions here. Scepticism about the workings of science is a good thing, as long as it’s not lazy or driven unreflexively by ideology. As philanthropist Jeremy Grantham wrote in Nature last year, overstatement may well often be very dangerous, especially for scientific careers, but when it comes to climate change understatement is even riskier, even unethical.

This was first published in the March edition of Popular Science UK. Visit their Facebook page to register for 3 free issues.

Climate change: a process, not an event

keeling curveThe Keeling Curve. It shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time. Anyone who follows climate change will know it well. It’s called Keeling after a Charles D. Keeling, and it’s curved because it’s going up. Dr K began a regular measure of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back in 1958, from an observatory in Hawaii. Today, his son Ralph works on the same research project; a nice example of the long-roots of our multi-generational science of environmental change. The full graph shows the long sweep from 1958 – when it was around 317 parts per million – till today’s readings skirting around 400. That’s what graphs show: Change. They are stories in a way.

I share it because I want to stress the point that climate change – like the science that lets us witness it and politics that helps us do anything about it – is a process, not an event.

Events have their uses. I was at a conference last year where scientist Myles Allen argued events like the upcoming Fifth Assessment of the IPCC were more trouble than they’re worth; an interruption to more effective on-going processes of science, only offering opportunities for sceptics. In response, journalist Fiona Harvey argued such events might not obviously serve scientists, but they allowed her a chance to take stock of the developments in climate science and work out what was best discussed with her readers. I think she had a point.

There was the Energy Bill last week, for example. An event which may not have come to the conclusion everyone wanted, perhaps, but it still had outcomes we can build on. It was also a chance to publicise the issue and build momentum, even if we’re not up to speed yet. On an international level, there are events like COPs, or Rio +20 last year. Again, frustrating for many, but not without reasons to be cheerful too. It’s important that these events are recognised as part of a longer process and that we build in spaces for reflection and recovery after moments of political failure. For all that the post-Copenhagen slump was understandable, it took way too long to recover from, and there are going to be more like that. Action on climate change isn’t a series of battles building to summative liberation; it’s a long, hard slog.

Dramatic moments within the processes of environmental change can also provide useful anchors for social and cultural reaction; whether they are events we can easily witness like the recent floods in Central Europe (yes, you can talk about weather events, just do it well) or those we need scientific work to help us see (such as when we passed 400ppm on the Keeling Curve).

If you’re playing horizon scanning, there’s also the potentially disruptive role of new technology to consider. Geoengineering is a key concern here, especially the way the very idea of it can impact on current plans, regardless of whether it actually happens or not. Science studies people sometimes talk about the sociology of expectations, the ways in which ideas of the future are applied and managed to influence what we do today. I don’t want to imply techno-pessimism here. The idea of a simple technofix may be silly, but technology can help us fix things too. There are reasons to be hopeful about the power of innovation. Still, we have to be bold and clever and take control of it, which is another reason why events much be understood as part of a process, so we can join the process as early on as possible and play a role in the direction technology takes (“upstream” engagement if you will).

Climate campaigners would also be served by paying more attention to science as a social process. They could work harder to forge alliances with scientists, utilise science’s social and cultural capital, and play a role in helping scientists productively talk to each other (especially in terms of how Western scientists might help those in the developing world). I’d also like to see them critique research funding more, helping to open public debates over why, what and whose ends our R&D budget is aimed at. Environmental NGOs could play a powerful role in helping science stand up for itself here, as well as helping science improve by critiquing itself; both things the scientific community should welcome.

That said, climate change communications could leave the science alone more often too. Climate change as an issue, isn’t simply the science of tracking what’s happening in the natural world, it is something we’ve been trying to act on for decades (albeit not always that successfully). And yet, if you look up “what is climate change”, you typically get scientific explanations. Programmes like adopt a negotiator are all too rare. We need more of these, ones that talk to different audiences in different ways, but at least try to connect the public with the political infrastructure of climate change. It’s perhaps no surprise many feel politically disengaged with climate change when all they are offered are depoliticised inscriptions of science.

But back to that graph, because it is important, and the point it hit 400 ppm last month. If you’d been following its climb, the power of hitting that symbolic point was very dramatic. I certainly felt it. But you needed to have been following it, or the drama looked a bit silly. Symbols don’t mean anything if you can’t anchor the referent. If we want people to be there for the various events of climate change, you need to engage them with the process first. If you want to avoid being surprised by other people’s events, you need to be connected to their processes. If you want to be resilient in the face of political failure, you need to see it as part of a long game and build spaces for recovery along the way. Climate change is a long game; action on it needs to keep its eye on that.

The first appeared on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog.

Climate, fuel and social justice

Science for PEOPLE 70s socialist science magazine

Some old copies of Science for People – the magazine of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science – landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been lost down archives of the 1970s radical science movement ever since. The following comes from the editorial in issue 25 in 1974.

Energy supply is seen as a purely technical problem to be solved by “experts” with a technical fix: nuclear fission and North Sea oil. These, we are told, will satisfy energy “demand” for the next twenty years. After that, we will only have plutonium waste and memories of the beauty of northwest Scotland. The most important questions are never asked: why will the “demand” for energy continue to grow? Do we really need so much energy? Technical answers will never solve the energy problem, since the problem, short or long term, is not technical but social and political. Cheap and abundant energy, chiefly oil, has been essential for the policy of sustained economic growth that has been pursued by all political parties (and the TUC) since the end of the Second World War. Economic growth has enabled the capitalist system to survive and evolve into its present interventionist, mildly social democratic form, by buying off and suppressing class conflict. The conditions which made it possible no longer hold: commodity prices have greatly increased, the international monetary system is in chaos, the balance of payments deficit is enormous, and oil is neither abundant nor cheap. Policies are polarising, the class structure of Britain is exposed and we must choose either authoritarian capitalism or socialism

I share it partly because aspects of it remind me of a debate on social justice and climate change I chaired last week as part of the Brighton Fringe (video below). The point about a choice between “authoritarian capitalism or socialism” was less overt, but there were aspects of a similar tension running through it, as was a sense that relying on simply technical answers would be foolish, because many of the speakers saw the problem as chiefly political. Or in some contrast, Myles Allen went full technofix in the Mail on Sunday over the weekend.

I don’t know if the similarities in these discourses say something depressing about lack of progress in energy policy or our ways of critiquing it. For all that I generally agree that issues of energy supply are political, not technical (and, moreover, the technical is political) it did feel like the scientific and technical issues were drowned out at that event. I also think that 21st century nuclear should be accessed on 21st century terms, not 1970s ones. Maybe I’m wrong about that though. You can watch for yourself.

Thanks to our panel (Thurstan Crockett, Jim Watson, Doug Parr and Kirsty Alexander) as well as Julia Day for putting it all together. Thanks also to Jon Agar for drawing this Science for People editorial to my attention.