The Dim-Post

August 31, 2010

Environmentalism and the left

Filed under: climate change — danylmc @ 6:12 am

DPF posts excerpts from an essay asking:

Did environmentalism poison liberals’ historical optimism?

In the late 1960s, liberals appeared to have the better of the argument. Something approaching the realm of freedom seemed to have arrived. American workers, white and black, achieved hitherto unimagined levels of prosperity. In the nineteenth century, only utopian socialists had imagined that ordinary workers could achieve a degree of leisure; in the 1930s, radicals had insisted that prosperity was unattainable under American capitalism; yet these seemingly unreachable goals were achieved in the two decades after World War II.

Why, then, did American liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved liberalism’s path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent hysterias.

I haven’t bothered reading the whole essay – based on the excerpt it seems like a waste of my time – but there are two points to be made on the general topic.

The first is that the response of social liberals (this is what Americans mean when they use the word liberal) to environmental problems is to try and find ways of addressing them, mostly through government policy and international treaties. The response of classical liberals is to pretend that the problems don’t exist – that they’re part of some global conspiracy – or that even if they do exist the correct response is to do nothing and hope that they’ll fix themselves, somehow. I think it’s obvious which of these approaches is the more responsible and intellectually robust.

The second point is that one of the tragedies of the global warming debate is that for many years the media portrayal of it was about how all our cities would be hundreds of feet underwater by the year 2005. The blame is partly that of our alarmist, scientifically illiterate media but also with members of the far left who argued that global warming and the threat of oceans flooding our malls was a reason to abandon capitalism and possibly even industrialism, so we could all live in some pre-technological communist utopia. If the consequences of global warming had been framed more moderately at the start of the debate – that it would lead to an increase in droughts, flooding, heatwaves and extreme weather events – I think the current debate around the issue would be a lot more enlightened.


  1. I, a moderately left-wing, environmentalism-leaning environmental scientist, have been arguing for a while that the Climate Change Movement was going to set back environmentalism in general a long, long way. Apart from being able to bask in one’s smugness, it’s disappointing to be seemingly so right (for once).
    If I’d been put in control of “selling” the issue, I would have invited all those opposed to the idea that we (humans) can have an impact on our atmosphere (and thus the climate) to suck on the exhaust pipe of a running car for a while. The end of world schtick wears thin way too fast.

    Comment by Nathaniel Wilson — August 31, 2010 @ 7:12 am

  2. “I think it’s obvious which of these approaches is the more responsible and intellectually robust.”

    The trouble is none of the classic environmental scares have manifested, so the liberal response cannot be considered robust.


    Comment by JC — August 31, 2010 @ 8:55 am

  3. If the consequences of global warming had been framed more moderately at the start of the debate, then any sensible response would still have endangered the profits of big oil companies, so the tobacco-lobby anti-scientists like Fred Singer and Steve Molloy would still have been lining up for their cheques.

    Comment by pete — August 31, 2010 @ 8:58 am

  4. none of the classic environmental scares have manifested, so the liberal response cannot be considered robust.

    The hole in the ozone layer certainly ‘manifested’ and the liberal response – policy, Montreal Treaty – was robust and very effective.

    Comment by danylmc — August 31, 2010 @ 8:59 am

  5. it just shows that people who use end-of-the-world stories to morally blackmail others to live lives like they want them to aren’t confined to the Right.

    Comment by NeilM — August 31, 2010 @ 9:00 am

  6. I think Farrar is moving further and further to the Palinesque right – take a look at his site today, it looks like an effort Trevor Loudon would be proud to call his own.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 31, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  7. Worth a look.

    Climate change: Lingering clouds
    By Fiona Harvey
    Published: August 29 2010 20:09 | Last updated: August 29 2010 20:09

    Floods in Pakistan have left millions homeless and at least one-fifth of the country inundated. In Russia, droughts have sparked wildfires that sent crippling smog over main cities, claiming scores of lives while destroying crops and costing billions of dollars in damage.

    The extreme weather of 2010 is likely to be remembered in these regions for many years to come. There as well as in the rest of the world, the broader question is whether, as climate scientists predict, this type of weather is set to become more common – and how certain we can be about that.

    This has been an unusual year – the warmest January-June period on record around the world, and the driest on record in some regions. But however extreme, the events of one year cannot be taken as proof of climate change. Natural variability brings periodic extreme floods, droughts and heatwaves around the world, and it takes years of data to distinguish this from any underlying trend.

    The most scientists are willing to say is that the weather in Pakistan and Russia is consistent with predictions of what will happen in a warming climate, driven by greenhouse gas increases.

    For it has also been a year in which the science of global warming has been questioned as never before. On Monday, climate research will come under the microscope again. A panel of the world’s most august scientific bodies will pass judgment on climate science, and specifically on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the grouping of the world’s leading experts whose advice forms the basis.

    Comment by dribble — August 31, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  8. Apologies for the length of the cutnpaste however I realised that many will not have a FT login.

    The investigation, and this year’s extreme weather, have thrown a spotlight on some of the murkiest corners of climate science: the areas where scientists are simply not sure what to expect. These uncertainties include the exact nature of the changes from a warming world, when and where these will strike, and how severely.

    Clearing up these unknowns is vital. If the scientists are right, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions must begin to fall within the next 10 years or so in order to have a good chance of avoiding the worst effects of global warming. That would require drastic changes to the world economy, a revolution in consumer behaviour, stiff regulation and – in the short term at least – higher costs to business.

    With all this at stake, politicians and business leaders are demanding answers – but sometimes, answers that scientists cannot give. Scientists are now addressing some of the areas of greatest concern with a new urgency and candour, following the “climategate” debacle that surrounded disputed data six months ago. Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, tackled the issue of uncertainties head-on when launching a new climate website last month.

    “The main uncertainties are how bad things will get,” he said. “There are enormous differences between different geographies around the world. The Arctic, for example, is enormously problematic. The most optimistic prediction is for an 8 degree [Celsius] rise, the most pessimistic a 16 degree rise.”

    The difference in climate terms is huge – today’s temperatures are only on average about 6°C higher than in the last ice age. Either of Sir John’s predictions would lead to a North Pole free of ice, but the warmer the temperatures the faster the melting of the vast Greenland ice sheet and therefore the sharper the rise in sea levels.

    Sir John pointed to another big uncertainty for politicians – how quickly the world is warming. We could be in for 4°C of warming by 2060, Sir John noted – or it might not be until 2100. For scientists, this variance is well within the expected margins – but for policymakers and business it makes a world of difference. It will determine how far and how urgently emissions need to be cut and the world economy reformed.

    David Easterling of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is, like most scientists, confident that the basic research and conclusions are correct. “The direction of travel is clear,” he says. “We are certain the world has warmed, and virtually certain that a lot of this came from human activities.”

    NOAA, working with most of the world’s other big climate research units, recently conducted the first big review of recent climate science since the IPCC’s 2007 report and found “unmistakable” signs of warming. Peter Stott, of the UK’s Met Office, goes further, saying that the signs of warming are so clear that they “have human fingerprints” all over them.

    Climate sceptics disagree with that analysis. But it is when scientists stray into more complex predictions that the real difficulties arise – and some of these can be crucial. What politicians really want from scientists is firm answers they can translate into targets and policy goals. So at last year’s Copenhagen summit, developed and developing country governments agreed to try to prevent temperatures rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

    That figure – adopted by governments as the limit of safety, beyond which the effects of climate change may become catastrophic and irreversible – ultimately derives from the IPCC report. But in the report, the 2-degree figure merely appears as one point amid a range of possible temperature increases, ranging from about 1.5°C to 4°C.

    According to governments, sticking to the 2°C target will require a halving of global emissions by 2050. That gives countries a handy reckoner by which to judge their climate policies. But scientists are not so sure. According to Vicky Pope of the Met Office, quoting recent research, halving global emissions by 2050 would give only a 50 per cent chance of avoiding the higher temperatures. These differences display the difficulty of shoehorning scientific ranges of probabilities into the confines of political expression.

    Other important areas of uncertainty are underestimated, critics assert. Contrast the reaction to this summer’s Russian drought and Pakistan’s floods with the response to the unusually deep and prolonged cold snap suffered by much of Europe and the US earlier in the year. While sceptics seized on the latter to ridicule global warming, many climate scientists dismissed it as a blip.

    Those differing reactions angered many sceptics. “Any record cold snap or harsh winter is, correctly, attributed to the dynamics of natural variability,” says Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate sceptic think-tank. “Yet extreme weather events that occur during the summer are habitually linked to man-made climate change. Numerous climate scientists are on record for claiming that such weather events ‘match IPCC projections’ of global warming.”

    This “inconsistent” way of treating extreme weather events is, says Mr Peiser, a prime reason why “climate science as a whole is, regrettably, haemorrhaging trust and respect”.

    Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the US Competitive Enterprise Institute and a prominent Washington sceptic, agrees: “There are whole areas where we don’t know enough, and where people just have different hunches, or guesses.”

    But for climate researchers, pointing up areas of doubt poses another dilemma – if they express the degrees of uncertainty inherent in any scientific modelling, they give ammunition to those who would attack the whole edifice of climate research and give politicians justification not to act.

    Portraying risks, probabilities and uncertainties is inevitably prone to distortion and is a constant cause of friction between scientists and the media. Any probability can be spun at least two ways. For the public, disentangling these complex messages can be impossible.

    Yet scientists are confident they can portray risks and uncertainties without altering their basic message. “Scientists should be giving clear information on what we do and don’t know – that is very important,” says Nicola Ranger, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.

    At the Met Office, Ms Pope points out that although some of the upper ranges of predictions particularly on temperature rises can be unclear, the lower ranges of those estimates are much firmer. While we cannot be sure whether the world will warm by a catastrophic 4°C or more, a rise of at least 1.5°C is virtually certain on current paths, she says.

    Either way, to identify the remaining areas of uncertainty should help. Take tropical storms: will they increase in frequency? What might the localised effects of climate change be on different regions of the world, not to mention the likely effects on human activities and infrastructure? Questions that surround the social and economic impact of climate change are among the thorniest, and some of these were at the core of the climategate allegations.

    “The uncertainty over the economic impact is much bigger than the uncertainties in the science itself,” says Ms Ranger.

    Local effects are among the hardest to model, adds Mr Easterling. “If you have a storm or heavy rainfall, it may cover only a few tens or hundreds of square kilometres but be devastating. At present, we can model the effects over continents but not down to that level,” he says.

    Yet the frustrating thing is that these predictions – the local effects – are what most people desperately want to know. The people of South Asia and Russia need to be told whether the catastrophes they are facing today will return next year, or within 20 years, or within 100 years.

    Beyond these issues is a small core of scientific problems that remain to be fully cracked. Some could imply that current predictions overstate the effect of carbon on the climate, while others – notably the posited “tipping points” or “feedback loops” in the climate system – could show that catastrophe is an imminent possibility. As Sir John points out: “Uncertainty goes both ways … It could be worse, or it could be a bit better.”

    When will these questions be answered? It seems unlikely that proof will come soon. One of the most vexed issues – clouds and their effect on the climate – has been the object of study for at least 30 years, without a definitive conclusion.

    Meanwhile, concentrations of airborne carbon increase year on year. Once carbon is in the atmosphere, it can stay there for a century, continuing its warming effect. The problem is that if action is delayed until these areas of uncertainty are resolved, the world may find it is too late.

    Unjolly hockey sticks

    The “hockey stick” graph reproduced in the 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long been derided by sceptics. It shows temperature data for the last 1,000 years. As widespread instrumental records have only been available for 150 years, data for other centuries were reconstructed from proxies such as tree rings and ice cores, which carry traces of previous climatic conditions. Tree ring data were a source of controversy in the University of East Anglia’s “climategate” e-mails. In a subsequent investigation, Britain’s leading statistician judged the graph flawed, though he added that better methods would not have drastically altered the pattern.

    Still to be resolved

    Eight ways in which science cannot be exact

    Range of likely temperature rises The broadly accepted scenario is that temperatures are likely to rise by 1.5–4°C above pre-industrial levels. However, a 2005 study headed by Myles Allen of Oxford university found rises could reach 11°C

    Timescale It is hard for scientists to predict by when temperatures could reach catastrophic levels. As Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, has noted, a 4°C warmer world could arrive in 2060 or 2100

    Hurricanes There is strong disagreement over whether global warming will give rise to more tropical storms. Although rising temperatures will mean higher sea surface temperatures, which are needed for tropical cyclones to form, their formation depends heavily on wind conditions

    Regions Although scientists believe they can model global conditions with a good degree of certainty – for instance, identifying the continents and regions most at risk of changes in rainfall and temperature – their models are not capable of predicting what will happen at a more local level. In future, this may be resolved through improvements to the models

    Rainfall Warmer air can hold more moisture, so global warming is expected to result in large changes in precipitation. Broadly, areas that already have a lot of rain can be expected to experience more, while areas that are already arid may suffer lower rainfall. Rainfall patterns are also likely to change, with an increase in very heavy, episodic downpours, perhaps punctuated by longer periods of drought. However, scientists cannot yet predict with much detail the areas that will be most affected

    Methane The release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the melting of the Arctic tundra could result in massively higher carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, triggering a feedback loop of warming temperatures melting more ice and releasing more methane. But most current climate models do not factor this in, according to Vicky Pope of the UK’s Met Office. The omission of this and other potential feedback mechanisms could mean that the current models are consistently underestimating the perils

    Antarctica While Arctic sea ice is demonstrably disappearing, the opposite is happening in the Antarctic. This has been seized on as evidence against global warming. Not so, counter climate scientists – the Antarctic ice is affected much more by the closing of the ozone hole and the changing wind patterns that are resulting, which are serving to preserve the ice in spite of warming conditions

    Clouds Perhaps the most frustrating uncertainty of all for climate scientists is over cloud formation and its effects. Clouds insulate the earth but they also, by their whiteness, deflect some of the sun’s heat into space.

    More clouds are likely to form as the climate warms, because warmer air holds more moisture. But some prominent sceptics including Richard Lindzen take the view that clouds will enforce a negative feedback mechanism that offsets much of carbon dioxide’s warming effect

    Comment by dribble — August 31, 2010 @ 9:20 am

  9. If you believe that AGW is an issue for the whole world and action is needed sooner rahter than later, then I don’t think that softly softly a la Montreal Protocol would have worked.

    Montreal affected a small part of the world and small part of industry where there were readily available alternatives.

    dealing with AGW potentially involves changing the nature of the energy and transport systems that our civilisations are based on.

    Quite different issues and interests are at stake. I don’t think the softly approach would not have galvanised attention and action – even with all the attention and fear there has hardly been any policy movement.

    However, once the issue entered the wider social consciousness there was probably a chance to pull back on blaming absolutely everything on AGW and focus on solutions. The Gore movie may have been that time.

    If in doubt, blame the media.🙂

    Comment by insider — August 31, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  10. “for many years the media portrayal of [global warming] was about how all our cities would be hundreds of feet underwater by the year 2005”

    It doesn’t help your case to make this exaggerated claim.

    Comment by Con — August 31, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  11. By the end of our century, waterfront areas will be flooded often enough to be unusable without expensive dykes and barrages.

    Agriculture will have been seriously disrupted – the poor will starve, the rich will spend way more of their income on food.

    At the same time, energy and commodity prices will have rocketed.

    That’s all going to destroy the social compact that’s enabled capitalism to dodge Marx by building a huge middle class that feels empathy with the rich. There’s gonna be trouble.

    Comment by rich — August 31, 2010 @ 11:33 am

  12. Welcome to uncertainty. It has always been a part of trying to forecast the weather and climate. It will become more so. When you provide a system with more energy (via greenhouse gasses), then the system gets more energetic. (Duh!) So we can expect higher highs and lower lows, bigger more frequent storms, and more years with fewer storms. In other words – it’s going to get harder to predict and plan. Whenever I hear the skeptics suggest that record cold goes against anthropogenic climate change (or proponents arguing that a record hot summer supports it), I keep going back to that mantra – more energy, more energetic, more extremes, less predictable.

    For example, the year of Katrina, the Caribbean had a record number of category 5 hurricanes that hit the US Gulf Coast. The next year – none.

    So hold on to your hats (perhaps literally as well as figuratively), it’s going to be a wild ride.

    Comment by David in Chch — August 31, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  13. “based on the excerpt it seems like a waste of my time” alongside “more responsible and intellectually robust”. Yep, this blog is truly the cradle of satire.

    Thank you for bringing the article to my attention, I enjoyed the read!

    Comment by Clunking Fist — August 31, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

  14. The ozone problem could be solved because the public could be engaged in a meaningful way (no ozone = cancer). The climate change debate is a mess in part because a) there is a big difference between climate and weather (And yet it’s rarely explained), and b) every time a flood, hurricane, drought etc. occurs we’re told it’s global warming related. Holocaust-esque statements such as those by Rich above don’t help either. Combining a real and scary problem (anthropogenic climate change) with both the ‘The boy who cried wolf’ and ‘Chicken Little’ simply won’t work in the long term.

    Comment by Nathaniel Wilson — August 31, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  15. Actually the ozone problem was easily solved because it was cheap and easy to replace CFCs with less hazardous chemicals. The acid rain problem was also solved rather easily, because there was a fairly inexpensive technological fix. By contrast, replacing the bulk of the world’s energy generation is going to cost a shit-load, and that cost is going to fall on pretty well everybody.

    I just don’t buy the line that we should play down the unfolding climate calamity so that people find it easier to accept. Avoiding the issue will not make it go away. The problem actually is that the truth is unpleasant and inconvenient, and many people want to avoid facing up to it.

    This is made worse by the fact that the fossil fuel industry is extremely large, and almost unbelievably wealthy, and they are doing their best to muddy the waters, confuse people, sow doubt, slander climate scientists, and blather on about “crying wolf”, “chicken little”, etc, etc. Why? Because that confusion is worth billions of dollars to them.

    Comment by Con — August 31, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

  16. The blame is partly that of our alarmist, scientifically illiterate media but also with members of the far left who argued that global warming and the threat of oceans flooding our malls was a reason to abandon capitalism and possibly even industrialism, so we could all live in some pre-technological communist utopia.

    Those who want to “abandon… industrialism”, and “live in some pre-technological” society are not “far left”, and they will tell you as much. Primitivists (the “anti-civilisation” crowd) typically style themselves as being “post-left”, and criticise the “far left” (communists, anarchists, demsocs, etc.) for an obsession with “workerism” (i.e. a focus on improving the condition of workers, rather than publishing zines about how integrated circuits are like, totally oppressive, man). Your typical communist or anarchist will have far more in common with a transhumanist than with a primitivist.

    Comment by derp de derp — August 31, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

  17. Franklin D Roosevelt and JFK, both of whom are distant relations of the late Princess Diana, used their power as President of the United States (or appeared to be trying to use that power to appease the majority) to bring about a new dawn, a world of freedom and liberalism and abundant prosperity.

    However, in the case of JFK, he was killed outside a wellknown Freemason building in Dallas, a sign it is believed by some, that the Freemasons were sending out a signal to those in the know (the Kennedys, other prominent political figures, and some could even go as far to say the Hunts) that this cause of freedom and liberalism would not be tolerated at this specific time because it did not fit into the timetable of when events were supposed to occur.

    Marilyn Monroe was coaxed into being a spy for this elite group of people but she tired of it and didn’t have the heart to go through with it. Jackie was originally meant to be the one to be killed in a car crash and Marilyn was being groomed to become the First Lady so that she would be able to exert a degree of control over her husband’s actions, but when this fell through and the secret elite realised they couldn’t control Jack, they arranged for him to be shot.

    It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s the truth. There are bankers out there and other such people who have a vested interest in the way events pan out. How else could you explain the $300 trillion that the world is currently in debt to the international bankers? They are now using environmental concerns to ensure that developed countries pay for the ‘environmental damage’ they cause, and this money goes to undeveloped countries. Why? Because tax-payer and Government funded development in those countries will make the bankers more rich and powerful.

    Comment by Liam — September 1, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

  18. How else could you explain the $300 trillion that the world is currently in debt to the international bankers?


    Comment by danylmc — September 1, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  19. The very same Aliens that took Liam far far away from Planet Earth.

    Comment by Phil — September 1, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

  20. Maybe they should have left him there, and taken all the other conspiracy theorists with him.

    Comment by David in Chch — September 1, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  21. Hey, whatdaya know: they have the internet on the far away planets. I bet they have taxpayer funded light-filled fibrous porn tubes fibre optic.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — September 1, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

  22. Is DPF an aspiring fantasy/scifi writer.
    He had better do better than this.

    He is becoming conspiratorial. Tut!

    Comment by peterlepaysan — September 1, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

  23. I have yet to see any scientific eveidence of AGW – corrolation is no proof of causation. In any event warming is tenuous – the Midieval Warming period was warmer with less CO2 about – reverse climate modeling can yiels whatever results you want by carefully selecting which rooster should crow.

    Comment by andy logar — February 25, 2011 @ 4:59 am

  24. boo

    Comment by andy logar — February 25, 2011 @ 5:15 am

  25. According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, if the venerable Queen Mary were set to float freely, absent any other forces, and a clothes line attached to the bow were to be pulled by even just one person, the ship would respond to the steady application of that (weak) force by eventually moving – at first ever-so-slowly – and then faster and faster. BUT, there would be a great time-delay between the application of that comparatively tiny pulling force and a resultant perceptible motion of the relatively enormous mass.

    The foregoing will metaphorically set up and serve to debunk the basis of the Global Warming alarmists’ argument that Man is the cause of a global warming trend which started circa 1850, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Note the following: Climatologists associate the term “forcing” with various effects that induce climatic changes as in, for example, atmospheric energy levels. Also, there is universal agreement that carbon dioxide is a weak greenhouse gas, hence its “forcing” capabilities are also weak.

    All that having been said, let’s take another look at the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) argument first noting the following: The proponents of AGW are saying that, right from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when there were no automobiles, very few steam engines, only 1.2 billion people (versus today’s 7 billion), the introduction of initially tiny quantities of a weak greenhouse produced, without time-delay, an in-phase and measurable rise in global temperatures that continues to this day. That is like saying the application of a weak force to an enormous mass sets that mass into immediate and measurable motion. That does not happen in simple mechanical systems nor would it in enormously complex and massive systems such as our atmosphere.

    Comment by Andy Logar — December 31, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  26. Are you the same Andy Logar who wrote this:

    If so, man you are cool! Are you a birther too?

    Comment by Guy Smiley — December 31, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

  27. A cut-n-paste by someone who then uses his name?

    Comment by Clunking Fist — January 1, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

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