Fortunately, there is a voice of sanity among the rabble. Ben Pile at first tries to reason with the fire-breathers, who think that Roger is 1) a stalking horse for the global climate conspiracy to enslave the free world, and 2) a polite version of James Hansen. Pile grows frustrated:
What bothers me is that there seems to be a reluctance to accept any nuance to the debate: any form of state intervention must be just one goose step away from global fascism; anyone not completely attached to the idea that there’s no such thing as global warming is in bed with M. Mann, and probably helped him draw the HS. It’s an attempt to impose lines over a debate which is messy, and has many dimensions. Frankly, it reminds me of the excesses of environmentalism.
The paranoids in the climate skeptic sphere are unmoved. Here’s one:
He [RPJ] is very dangerous because he can speak publicly with authority although most of what he calls science is arm waving. He used some very clever presentation techniques. Very professional.
Pile gives up:
I don’t see the point in all this… ‘Sceptics’, mirroring the worst of environmentalism. Turns out that many of them are zealots, too.
He sounds as if he just found this out.
I recently wrote that environmentalism was fading fast as a meaningful movement, and argued that only green modernists could resurrect it. The piece got bounced around a lot on twitter and elicited both praise and barbs. Discover magazine asked if I would do my promised follow-up for them.
Here’s a teaser from the opening:
If you were cryogenically frozen in the early 1970s, like Woody Allen was in Sleeper, and brought back to life today, you would obviously find much changed about the world.
Except environmentalism and its underlying precepts. That would be a familiar and quaint relic. You would wake up from your Rip Van Winkle period and everything around you would be different, except the green movement. It’s still anti-nuclear, anti-technology, anti-industrial civilization. It still talks in mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age, cooing over Mother Earth and the Balance of Nature. And most of all, environmentalists are still acting like Old Testament prophets, warning of a plague of environmental ills about to rain down on humanity.
Read the whole piece over at Discover.
As some might recall, the climate science community split into several camps in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I think similar fault lines are emerging in the global warming/severe weather debate.
In my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I discuss this in the context of a popular new frame, which lends itself to those who, as University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass wrote recently,”either imply or explicitly suggest” that recent severe weather events are the result of global warming. This is a relatively new climate minefield for reporters to navigate, especially since some of the most outspoken climate scientists forcefully making this case are frequently quoted in the media. Mass has something notable to say about that, too.
What’s going to end up happening, I think, is that climate activists are going to continue to play up the global warming/severe weather angle–with the help of some climate scientists–and this is going to cause a Katrina-like rift in the climate science community. Go read my piece at the Yale Forum and let me know what you think.
It’s a testament to James Lovelock’s standing in the science world that one phone conversation can trigger a media tidal wave.
In case you’re just tuning in to the news, Lovelock has rejected his own prophecy on global warming, which he previously believed would soon kill off most of humanity and “leave the few survivors living a Stone Age existence.”
Now Lovelock is saying that he a got bit ahead of himself on that climate apocalypse stuff. According to MSNBC:
He [Lovelock] said he still thought that climate change was happening, but that its effects would be felt farther in the future than he previously thought.
“We will have global warming, but it’s been deferred a bit,” he said.
The upshot of all this is that Lovelock has chastised himself and others for being overly “alarmist” (in his case, that would be an understatement).
The reaction to Lovelock’s walkback has raised many eyebrows. A few are lauding him, as Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle does here:
I’m sure some people will take this opportunity to attack Lovelock, and climate science in general. That is wrong-headed and as misguided as blind alarmism. Alarmism is no worse than the climate-change-is-a-hoax mentality. Lovelock has done a real service here by putting a dent in the attacks of the world-is-ending-now mentality of climate change activists.
As you may recall I have lamented the fact that in the present-day climate advocacy wars, reality is often the first casualty. In stepping back from his over-the-top alarmism, Lovelock has struck a blow for science and for reality.
Actually, the people who are bashing (more like ridiculing) him–get out your irony meter–are some of the biggest climate alarmists–the ones who endlessly warn of “hell and high water” and “civilization-threatening climate disruption,” unless there is immediate action on climate change.
Why would climate activists be badmouthing Lovelock? This headline from Media Matters goes a long way in explaining why:
Lovelock gives conservatives another reason to drop climate science
In other words, by saying that climate change is not the doomsday threat he thought it was–far from it–Lovelock is giving ammunition to the climate activist enemy. So that’s why Joe Romm, elbows out, asserts that Lovelock
has now overshot in the other direction of climate science confusion and just keeps peddling nonsense.
Funny, but when I go back and read the articles on Lovelock when he was in full apocalyptic mode, I’m not seeing his colleagues wave him off as a nonsense peddler. In a long 2006 Washington Post profile, Lovelock says:
Our global furnace is out of control. By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon will become a desert, and the forests of Siberia will burn and release more methane and plagues will return.
If you read the whole WaPo article, you won’t walk away with the impression that scientists are rolling their eyes at Lovelock. In fact, the reporter says:
What’s perhaps as intriguing are the top scientists who decline to dismiss Lovelock’s warning. Lovelock may be an outlier, but he’s not drifting far from shore. Sir David King, science adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, saluted Lovelock’s book and proclaimed global warming a far more serious threat than terrorism. Sir Brian Heap, a Cambridge University biologist and past foreign secretary of the Royal Society, says Lovelock’s views are tightly argued, if perhaps too gloomy.
Let’s move on to another respectful profile (from 2007), this one in Rolling Stone by Jeff Goodell:
If such predictions were coming from anyone else, you would laugh them off as the ravings of an old man projecting his own impending death onto the world around him. But Lovelock is not so easily dismissed…Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, credits Lovelock with inspiring him to pledge billions of dollars to fight global warming. “Jim is a brilliant scientist who has been right about many things in the past,” Branson says. “If he’s feeling gloomy about the future, it’s important for mankind to pay attention.”
And there’s the rub. If Lovelock isn’t feeling so gloomy anymore, which is what his statements to MSBC suggest, then that’s not a message that climate activists want taken seriously.
What’s amusing about all this business is that the fear-mongering language and imagery of climate doom is pretty much standard fare for the climate activist community–and has been for some time. So it’s a bit rich of some activists to now trash Lovelock because he’s decided he went overboard with his own claims about climate catastrophe. I’d take his critics more seriously if they reigned in their own exaggerated, hyperbolic rhetoric.
One of the main points I was making in this recent post is that the shelf life of green catastrophism has expired. But environmentalists don’t want to hear this. Many have responded indignantly to the contrast I set up between what I call green traditionalists and green modernists. In the coming week, I’ll respond in full to the various critiques made on twitter and in the comment thread.
Meanwhile, let me direct your attention to this excellent essay in The Atlantic, called “The Perils of Apocalyptic Thinking.” It’s adapted from a new book just out: The Last Myth: What the rise of apocalyptic thinking tells us about America.
To some degree, the essay covers the same ground discussed here. But the authors of the Atlantic piece also make some trenchant observations on the apocalyptic climate change frame that activists are so fond of and which mainstream media dutifully echoes:
Talking about climate change or peak oil through the rhetoric of apocalypse may make for good television and attention-grabbing editorials, but such apocalyptic framing hasn’t mobilized the world into action. Most of us are familiar with the platitude “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In a similar way, our over-reliance on the apocalyptic storyline stands between us and our ability to properly assess the problems before us. Some see the looming crises of global warming and resource and energy depletion and conclude that inaction will bring about the end of civilization: only through a radical shift toward clean energy and conservation, those on the Left argue, can we continue the way of life that we have known. Those on the Right dismiss the apocalyptic threats altogether, because the proposed solutions to peak oil, global warming, and overpopulation conflict with core conservative beliefs about deregulation and the free-market economy, or with a religious worldview that believes humanity is not powerful enough to alter something as large as our climate. Still others dismiss the catalog of doom and gloom as mere apocalypticism itself. Surely, we convince ourselves, all the dire warnings about the effects of global warming aren’t that different from the world-ending expectations of the Rapturists?
These are the two sides that have come to characterize our cartoonish public debate on climate change. As the Atlantic authors note:
The result is that the energy we could expend addressing the problems before us is instead consumed by our efforts to either dismiss the threat of apocalypse or to prove it real. Ultimately, the question becomes not what to do about the threats before us but whether you believe in the threats before us.
By allowing the challenges of the 21st century to be hijacked by the apocalyptic storyline, we find ourselves awaiting a moment of clarity when the problems we must confront will become apparent to all — or when those challenges will magically disappear, like other failed prophecies about the end of the world. Yet the real challenges we must face are not future events that we imagine or dismiss through apocalyptic scenarios of collapse — they are existing trends.
Just a quick aside: How many of you think the “connect the dots” campaign is going to (finally) make the case for global warming’s catastrophic impacts?
Personally, I don’t think the climate doom drumbeat is going to move the needle on public opinion, beyond short, periodic blips, notwithstanding the latest poll results. There’s also the risk of this boomerang, according to the Atlantic authors:
The deeper we entangle the challenges of the 21st century with apocalyptic fantasy, the more likely we are to paralyze ourselves with inaction — or with the wrong course of action.
But hey, at least we can indulge these fantasies in the comfort of our bunkers.
When it comes to climate change, Grist (like many green advocacy outlets), is quick to pounce on media stories it deems substandard. A recent example is this slapdown from Grist’s executive editor, titled:
How Huffington Post aided a demolition job on climate science
Well, it turns out that Grist has a wrecking ball of its own, in the form of an article headlined:
New Study links autism to high-fructose corn syrup
Yes, you read that right.
The Grist writer, Tom Laskawy, gives this overview:
The study’s argument is complicated but deeply disturbing. It pieces together what’s known about the genetic and metabolic factors involved with autism, including the growing evidence of a link between autism and mercury and organophosphate pesticide exposure.
Essentially, HFCS [high fructose corn syrup] can interfere with the body’s uptake of certain dietary minerals “” namely zinc. And that, when combined with other mineral deficiencies common among Americans, can cause susceptible individuals to develop autism.
It gets better. A little further down, the author admits:
Now, this is just one paper. And a full understanding of it requires far more expertise in biology and genetics than I possess.
Next breath comes this:
But I certainly think it shifts the HFCS debate in an unexpected and troubling way.
If you really want to know how troubled the whacky debate over corn syrup is, here’s the backstory.
As for the current Grist post, some readers pushed back on Laskawy’s obvious bias. Here’s one blistering retort:
This is EXTREMELY irresponsible! First of all, even if the authors of this study made a good case for a correlation between HFCS exposure and autism (which they don’t), they would still have a lot of explaining and research to do before claiming that HFCS consumption played any role in autism.
The entire study was unnecessary in the first place as the previous study the authors mention linking expression of their gene of interest to OP exposure is very robust. They basically come right out and admit that they just have strong personal feelings (and no supporting data) that autism is caused by diet. In addition, their hypothesis relies on their previously developed mercury toxicity model which has already been thoroughly discredited. The whole article absolutely reeks of the foregone conclusion that diet plays a critical role in autism and the author declares that he has a competing interest in that he’s worked with lawsuits related to autism.
By writing an article about this terrible study and giving it such a misleading title you are revealing yourself as either a) too stupid to be trusted with the responsibility of writing about science or b) willing to knowingly mislead the public in the service of your irrational personal hatred of HFCS.
Another reader picked up on something mentioned in the study that Laskawy apparently missed or willfully ignored:
And this is something I’m sure Grist would point out if a paper was funded by Big Corn: “Funding for this research project was provided primarily by donations to the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute” which is the lead author’s organization.
It’s good that Grist is on the lookout for inferior climate science coverage at other publications. Perhaps it should be more alert to the shoddy and irresponsible science journalism practiced in its own house.
UPDATES: Since putting up my brief post, I’ve become aware of other critiques on Twitter and elsewhere. For example, here is John Timmer of Ars Technica, tweeting here and here. Also, ace science writer Deborah Blum weighed in at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.
That’s the title of my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. Specifically, I discuss the controversy over genetically modified (GM) crops, and why there is no scientific basis for being opposed to them–especially if you care about the issue of food security in a warming world.
There is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism. It is a battle between traditionalists and modernists. Who prevails is likely to be determined by whose vision for the future is chosen by a new generation of environmentalists.
The green traditionalist has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists. Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.
The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action. Today, the green traditionalist is like a parent who incessantly yells at his child to behave–or else. The parent grows angrier and increasingly frustrated when the child inevitably tunes him out.
If there is a path to a more realistic, hopeful future, the green traditionalist has not advanced it. Getting back to the land was great hippy fun in the 1960s and 1970s. Inveighing against modern civilization and retreating into an artificial wilderness congealed in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, green chic has been riddled with contradictions and ascetic deprivation has still been found wanting.
Despite his broken-record messaging and inexorable slide into irrelevancy, the green traditionalist remains stubbornly resistant to new approaches. Like the ineffective parent, he keeps yelling, thinking his kids will eventually listen. As any parent will tell you, that’s never worked.
Enter the post-environmental, green modernist. Pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth, the green modernist has emerged in recent years to advance an alternative vision for the future. His mission is to remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better. As the geographer Erle Ellis recently wrote:
Creating that future will mean going beyond fears of transgressing limits and nostalgic hopes of returning to some pastoral or pristine era. Most of all, we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human directed opportunity.
The green modernist recognizes that technology, as it has done all through human history, is a means to improve the human condition and reduce the worrisome ecological pressure on the planet. At the very least, as Mark Lynas writes in his new book:
We cannot afford to foreclose powerful technological options like nuclear, synthetic biology, and GE [genetic engineering] because of Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia.
The green modernist recognizes that conservation philosophy in the Anthropocene will have to change. But first it must stop worshiping at the wilderness cathedral and offer a world where nature and society can coexist harmoniously and productively. It must, as the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva (and co-authors) write in this essay, promise
a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness — ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science — and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.
This means recognizing that cities, long the bane of green traditionalists, are places where humanity and nature can thrive together. The evidence for this is, in fact, piling up. Of course, this is not to suggest that protected ecological reserves are unnecessary. As I said here, the existence of urban nature does not obviate the need for big tracts of unbroken habitat for animals to roam. “But,” I wrote, “the idea that ecosystems and wildlife can still flourish in big cities challenges some of our cherished notions of nature.”
As Emma Marris observes in her new book, Rambunctious Garden:
Our mistake has been thinking that nature is something “out there,” far away. We watch it on TV, we read about it in glossy magazines. We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It blinds us.
Incidentally, if you’re curious by what Marris means by “rambunctious garden,” here is her explanation in a NYT Q & A:
When I came up with the title, it was meant to work on two levels. One level is that we have to accept at this point that the earth is maybe more like a garden than like a wilderness because we have done so much to it and we do so much changing and managing all the time that we we’re in charge and we better just accept that. But if you just call it a garden, it implies that it’s neat and orderly, like a little English knot garden. It doesn’t have to be that way; it doesn’t have to be soulless or too tidy. It can be wild and crazy and have a lot of vitality and spirit of its own.
In her book, Marris chronicles examples of managed nature and claims it is is indicative of a “paradigm shift” underway in the environmental world. Perhaps, but as I noted here, green traditionalists don’t appear to be very receptive to the arguments put forth by Kareiva, Lynas and their fellow modernists within the environmental movement.
That leads me to a New York Academy of Sciences panel discussion I attended this week, “Nature and the City: What Good is Urban Conservation?” At the outset, the moderator Bill Ulfelder noted the Marris book, Stewart Brand’s manifesto, as well as this recent collection of essays, and asked: “Is conservation facing a paradigm shift, or is this buzz?” The other speakers on the panel seemed dubious about any major shift, but to a person they did suggest that the relationship between people and nature could be positively redefined by a newfound appreciation for urban ecology. I’ll return to some of the highlights from the panel in an upcoming post later this week. For now, I’ll stay with the main idea of this post, which is that green traditionalists find themselves increasingly challenged by green modernists.
In a recent essay, the Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued that environmentalists should learn from the history of human progress. But they also acknowledge
the reality and risks of the ecological crises humans have created. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, and other human activities — if they don’t threaten our very existence — certainly offer the possibility of misery for many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans and are rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years.
But the answer, they assert, is not to turn away from what we do best:
The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity — just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technologies has always been more technology. The Y2K computer bug was fixed by better computer programming, not by going back to typewriters. The ozone-hole crisis was averted not by an end to air conditioning but rather by more advanced, less environmentally harmful technologies.
They conclude that the modernist green must be a champion of technology and prosperity:
Would we like a planet with wild primates, old-growth forests, a living ocean, and modest rather than extreme temperature increases? Of course we would — virtually everybody would. Only continued modernization and technological innovation can make such a world possible.
At the New York Academy of Sciences panel on urban conservation, one speaker, noting the explosive growth of cities this century, said “the world is in a desperate race for urban sustainability.” The outcome of that race is certain to determined by the forces of modernization and technological innovation. The sooner more greens understand this, the sooner that race can be won.
Did you know that a group of scientists whose work has stirred public controversy are under siege? That their findings are vehemently contested? That they are harassed by zealots and that some have endured death threats?
In Europe, virulent anti-GMO opposition has been building for over a decade. (New Scientist has a nice rundown of how the alarmist campaign against GMO’s took root and spread in the UK.) This despite abundant evidence that worrisome impacts to public health and ecosystems are unfounded, notwithstanding hysterical media reports to the contrary.
No matter, opposition to GMO’s is passionate and in some parts of the world shows no signs of abating. By now, scientists are likely resigned to it. Indeed, as Emily Waltz wrote in Nature several years ago:
No one gets into research on genetically modified (GM) crops looking for a quiet life. Those who develop such crops face the wrath of anti-biotech activists who vandalize field trials and send hate mail.
But as she reported, some of these same researchers have also become hostile to their own colleagues–or at least those who are investigating potential safety or contamination issues. The case (and behavior) she discusses has some notable parallels with the gatekeeping charges leveled against the climate science community. Part of the rationale rings a similar bell, too: The concern that shoddy science (in this instance, a paper that asserted GM corn could have “unexpected ecosystem-scale consequences”) gives ammunition to opponents (anti-GMO activists).
The comparisons with climate science do not carry over in one notable respect: Outrage over the harassment of GMO scientists and the destruction of their research. Environmentalists, who have rallied to the aid of climate scientists under attack, stay mum about the continued destruction to GMO field crops and the intimidation campaign against biotech researchers. Why do you suppose that is?
Perhaps they are just taking their cue from scientists themselves. As the NYT reported last year:
There is a ripple of unease among many scientists who study the warming of the planet these days. Some have faced harassment, legal challenges and even death threats related to their research, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports.
On Tuesday, the board of directors of the association, which publishes the journal Science, released a strongly worded statement “vigorously opposing” such attacks on researchers, saying that the tactics inhibited the free exchange of scientific ideas.
“Reports of harassment, death threats and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas, and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policy makers and the public,” the board said. “This both impedes the progress of science and interferes with the application of science to the solution of global problems.”
This led one biotechnology researcher to observe:
Unfortunately there is no mention of the plight of genetic scientists who have also been subject to legal threats by anti-GMO lobby groups, and by certain organic organisations. These threats suppress free-speech on important human welfare and safety issues.
Evidently, not all scientists are deemed worthy of coming to the defense of.
Every so often something I write shakes up the climate skeptic hive. They also start buzzing like mad, I have noticed, when you explain to them that their honeypot (the climate science cabal) is not really what excites them.
Oh well, so much for transparency.
In my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I lay out my case in detail.
This does not mean I am suggesting that aspects of climate science are not debatable, or that the hyperbolic rhetoric and exaggerated assertions of climate campaigners should not be called out. Indeed, it might be said that those who uncritically parrot these campaigners are merely the flipside of the same coin.
The truth is, neither side is much willing to acknowledge the tribal (and ideological) nature of the climate debate.