Category: Climate Change: The books, the films, the blogs


Superfreakonomics: caused a freak out in the popular discussion of climate change

Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner has stirred up more comment than many books focusing specifically on climate change. It’s semi-official, I’ve been researching the number of references to various climate-change-related books and films in broadsheet newspapers since 2008 and my figures at this stage show more mentions of Levitt and Dubner’s work than of all of James Lovelock’s put together (in the period January 2008 to June 2010) in climate-change-related contexts. Admittedly, the vast majority were in the Guardian, but still.

The section of Superfreakonomics on climate change is not bad though a little prone to stating points that are fairly well known already (e.g. methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) as if they are EXCITING NEW DISCOVERIES FROM BRILLIANT FREAKONOMICS ANALYSIS! Apparently Al Gore exaggerates to get his message across and the media tend to report things in an overly dramatic manner. What next, evidence that environmentalists tend to worry about climate change and that endangered species of bears tend to defecate in woodlands? I’ll allow them all that, though, in the name of popularising the discussion.

It gets interesting, however, when they start talking about geoengineering, their proposals to deliberately manipulate the climate to counteract the effects of climate change. Their case is as follows

  1. Anthropogenic climate change is a very real problem, although over-hyped by the media and particularly Al Gore
  2. Tackling it by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (mitigation) is very expensive, but effective geoengineering could be much cheaper. Injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere could stabilise the climate at a cost of $250 million, compared to the Stern Review‘s $1.2 trillion
  3. There are uncertainties and risks of side effects, so technologies should have cautious test runs
  4. The aforementioned injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling effect of volcanoes is the most promising method, but cloud seeding, spraying seawater into the atmosphere to create more, cooling clouds, should also be considered

Perhaps surprisingly, many climate change activists and writers are ardently against geoengineering. Here, for example, are the key points of a New Internationalist article on the subject, and the growing campaign against geoengineering solutions.

  1. “Unproven scientific ‘fixes’ for global warming are a major threat to the planet”
  2. Injecting sulphur into the atmosphere to mimic volcanoes is dubious: “Such volcanoes have occasionally cooled down the atmosphere before. Unfortunately, they can also cause monsoons to weaken and fail, intensifying hunger in the tropics.”
  3. The actors involved in geoengineering propositions are largely unaccountable and not subject to due process: one scientist has already started in Russia. A Friends of the Earth International spokesman argues: “The same countries and companies that have neglected climate change for decades are now proposing very risky geoengineering technologies that could further disrupt the weather, peoples and ecosystems. We simply don’t trust them to do so equitably.”

An unmanned cloud-seeding ship, floated as a possibility by Superfreakonomics and the preferred approach of Bjørn Lomborg

Myself, I am cautiously in favour of geoengineering being explored. I do accept the principle that kicking-off large-scale climatic change is a risky process full of potential unintended consequences, but given the scale of potential climate change damages, we should absolutely do our homework on this one. Perhaps the solution lies in a variety of small-scale geoengineering projects coupled with mitigation and with adaptation to some level of inevitable climate change.

A thorough and accountable process for testing and investigating geoengineering projects seems like a necessity, but a poor process does not mean a poor idea. There is a risk, admittedly, of side-lining mitigation in favour of geoengineering, when until geoengineering can be proved to work, mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions should continue at full steam. Like most people, I am not in a position to assess the viability of geoengineering technology, but we should absolutely be giving it a chance. There is no question of not saving the planet, but its better still if we can save the planet money along the way.

P.s. I’m very suspicious of cloud-seeding, also the preferred geoengineering method of Bjørn Lomborg (see his article for the New Statesman). Everything I hear about the physical science of clouds stresses uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty. The uncertainty bar in the 2007 IPCC report dealing with clouds as a cause of climate change is huge (see “cloud albedo effect” on the bar graph on the relevant page of the IPCC website). This is not a reason not to try, but bear that in mind.

I finally watched The Simpsons Movie last night. No-one told me it was about environmentalism – I would have seen it sooner!

It raised in my mind a serious problem in climate change perception: climate change appears in two, fairly minor places, and is equated with general greeniness rather than given what might be considered the respect it is due as a social issue! Although I’m always keen to connect climate change to wider environmental issues as a different head of the same hydra of ecological limits to human society, in the context it feels like it’s shoved in as a concern of the terminally earnest (in this case Lisa Simpson, her love interest Colin and guest stars, punk band Greenday).

Colin, Lisa's love interest. Irish guitarist/multi-instrumentalist environmentalist. Speaks with a roguishly charming Irish brogue

Your blogger. English guitarist/multi-instrumentalist environmentalist. Speaks with annoyingly posh English drawl

For those who haven’t seen the film, here’s the premise (no spoilers here, I promise). Springfield and the national government deal with a local environmental degradation issue: the pollution of a local lake, and is gently sympathetic to environmentalist causes, though treats the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a crack, highly militarised force for environmental rough justice. Though the EPA were the villains of the film, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to look at this and think “if only”.

The first reference is when Lisa meets her beau, and they finish each others sentences, exchanging statistics on environmental degradation, climate change and oil dependency. All shoved in together. This is, I think, what is wrong with much of how climate change is perceived, as something environmentalists get excited about in a somewhat nerdy fashion, but doesn’t need any further comment.

The second is in the fantastic spoof of An Inconvenient Truth, in which Lisa tells the town about lake pollution using a lift to show rising levels. The lift breaks, the town unanimously elect to buy a new lift, ignoring the key issue. The fact that it is seen as logical to parody a global warming presentation with a local pollution presentation backs up this sense that all environmental issues can be treated as one undistinguished mass.

Linking climate change to wider environmental concerns is important. We need, however, to distinguish between this and marginalising climate change as just another pollution issue for the tree-huggers to worry about. Many a polluted lake undoubtedly has its share of social impacts, but climate change should be treated on a whole other level of concern.

A piece on the Panorama programme on climategate recently appeared on climate progress, a major climate blog, heavily criticising the programme for giving too much air time to sceptics. Having watched and reviewed it myself, I disagree strongly with much of what this post says and why is written below.

Agreement

First, however, let me lay out what I agree with, unfortunately not an awful lot. This is partly because honestly the last thing I want to do is get into a blogging dogfight, especially with blogs and readers from the climate consensus! If you’re reading this, I’m your team, guys.

The second is that I dislike the adversarial style of much of the climate change discussion that goes on in the news media, in the books and online, much of which has to do with cheap point-scoring, defending predetermined positions and ad hominem attacks (attacking people rather than arguments). The climate progress blog’s arguments are reported in italics.

“Representing the climate science camp, Panorama use a grey haired climate scientist (Dr Bob Watson) and a London climate policy academic (Bob Ward) who manage reasonably good communications but are weaker than Lomborg, a well trained and well presented media spokesperson.”

I don’t have much to add to this, except that I don’t think it’s Panorama’s fault that Watson and Ward weren’t as media savvy as Lomborg. Our lot need to get better at this. That said, I certainly don’t consider it Panorama’s job to adjudicate on how presentable their climate consensus interviewees are (or, indeed, to only interview hunch-backed, scarred and incomprehensible sceptics!)

The “balance as bias” thesis that underpins this article

This is the argument, drawing on the work on Maxwell Boykoff, that news media principles and other factors have produced a balanced portrayal of the sceptic vs. consensus debates when the science is overwhelming dominated by the “consensus” side (hence the name, “consensus”). Absolutely. I have some reservations in this context (see below) but I accept the general principle. There should, of course, be some role for minority voices in any discussion, but the proportion is often wrong in the case of climate change reporting

Disagreement

The piece complains that the BBC description of the show begins with the line “To some, it’s a massive conspiracy to con the public. To others, it’s the greatest threat to the future of our world.” Is unfair because “There is 0.00% chance hat global warming is a massive conspiracy to con the public…Nicely balanced “sides,” BBC.”

What the line says is that some people think it is. That’s not a comment on what the truth is, it’s a comment on public perceptions. This is a bit of excessive rhetorical flair, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that no one interviewed in the programme said anything of the sort.

The programme features the “thoroughly debunked Bjorn Lomborg”, and “the long wrong John Christy” and “the utterly discredited purveyor of hate speech” Lord Monckton.

1. Bjørn Lomborg has not been “thoroughly debunked” because a book of criticisms of him has been published, any more Michael Mann, also featured in the documentary can be considered “thoroughly debunked” because of Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion”. Criticisms are part of an ongoing debate. (Lomborg is, as many of the comments on that post point out, can only barely be classed a sceptic – he has repeatedly stated his thinks climate change is a major problem facing the world. He mostly thinks the rhetoric is out of control and that we should favour adaptation over mitigation. In the words of one of the comments “He is hated and despised by a lot of denialists who see him as insufficiently radical for their fanatical anti-environmentalism”)

2. I have to admit I don’t have a fully formed opinion about John Christy, though was pleased to see interview footage of him so I can understand his opinions in more detail. He featured prominently in “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, but that film was so riddled with complaints of misrepresenting its interviewees views that I am suspicious of what I saw of his there. Also the man was well-respected enough to be a lead author of the IPCC 3rd Assessment Report, I think it’s fair to treat him as a serious scientist. (The linked blog post criticising Christy Should you believe anything John Christy says? I also have a fair few reservations about)

3. Lord Monckton… ok, actually, I agree here. Monckton is not a serious figure. All that was shown however, was a brief clip of him arguing with some protesters. Ideally we wouldn’t see him at all, but

“John Christy, atmospheric scientist and mild sceptic (one of the only real scientist in the world out of thousands of qualified scientists who has some skeptical views), is given equal air time than climate scientists Bob Watson and Michael Mann (who is critiqued whilst Christy is not). This is balance as bias.”

I am mostly very sympathetic to the “balance as bias” argument (as stated earlier), but this is a piece about the credibility of climate science. It is right to give sufficient air-time to the critics in this context. Furthermore the piece was excellent at allowing the interviewees to explain their positions in detail, and the fact that Christy explains that he believes in anthropogenic global warming to some extent and, to his credit, explicitly says he knows he’s in the minority of scientists. This level of explanation does us more good than harm by clarifying what is agreed on.

Mann is critiqued because he has been under huge scrutiny recently. To ignore this is to ignore accurate context.

“The introduction suggests reporter Tom Heap speaks to both sides of what is a science argument yet Bjorn Lomborg (not a climate scientist), and other non-scientists appear.”

Science is not the only aspect of the climate change debates, that’s why the IPCC has “Impacts and Adaption” and “Mitigation” reports. Both sides of the science argument are represented (John Christy on the one hand and X and Y on the other), but the programme had other interests besides the science. Lomborg’s appearance is alongside Bob Ward, both of them primarily policy rather than science expects.

“Panorama gives voice to an average UK family man whose non-scientific opinion suggests global warming ‘is natural’. Research shows that large parts of the population identify with this kind of person as they do not understand climate science and look to peers for guidance.”

This part of the programme was… well, a bit dull, but the idea that a BBC programme shouldn’t interview the public on a social issue is ridiculous. I would not expect that BBC to be slammed to interviewing someone in the street for their opinions of the coalition government, for example. Yes, climate change is more complicated, but one of the main points of the programme was to honestly report the uncertainty in the general population. He was also there next to his wife, who was equally lacking in expert knowledge and believed the opposite.

“Panorama publicize Lomborg’s upcoming sceptic film ‘Cool It’ without critique but focus on negative aspects of Al Gore’s film.”

This was part of Lomborg’s biography, and a reasonable thing to do in the context of explaining who he is. It’s difficult to critique a film that hasn’t come out yet. Conversely controversies over “An Inconvenient Truth” have been part of public discourse since it came out.

“Panorama focus on UK government climate change minister saying ‘it is up to behavior [sic] change’ when clearly national and international policy must lead mitigation not individuals”

While I completely agree that national and international policy must lead mitigation, it isn’t a fact. In an ideal world there would be a counter-argument to this, but it’s a half hour programme and clearly there are limits to which these debates can all be engaged with in detail.

Conclusion

Was there a needless anti-consensus bias in Panorama? I don’t think so. As a concerned member of the public, I want to know what the disagreements are on major policy issues, even when the disagreements come from minority perspectives. The scope and urgency of climate change is a reason for rigorous debate, not for the shutting down of opposition. I also do not what sound production decisions by a documentary, where figures and controversies are given in reasonable context, good or bad, to be compromised by needlessly exacting standards on bias.

In lots of contexts with climate change reporting there is an issue where balance is bias. In a discussion of the validity of science after climategate, however, balance is pretty key.

Bjørn Lomborg: "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and the consummate economic rationalist

One of the more interesting figures in the climate change debate is Bjørn Lomborg. The Danish self-styled “skeptical environmentalist” has been named one of the world’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century in Esquire magazine (2008) and one of the “50 people who could save the planet” by the UK Guardian (2008) and gave a TED talk in 2005. He has also generated much controversy, including a run in with the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty and a website devoted specifically to detailed criticisms of his work. In the last year he has had articles published in The New Statesman (on geoengineering through cloud control), The Spectator (“Man-made global warming is real. The solutions being touted are not”), The Wall Street Journal (“Technology can fight global warming”), and his “Copenhagen Consensus” conference of eight Nobel Laureate economists has proved both influential and controversial.

In brief his views (see also his views on YouTube) are these:

1. Climate change is a major problem, it is just over-hyped by popular discussion

2. The cost of mitigating climate change is high, and more good could be done by spending that money elsewhere, on things like communicable diseases and economic development

3. Adaptation to climate change will happen automatically, and where it won’t we should consider the many occasions when adaptation be cheaper than mitigation

4. When the major impacts of climate change strike in the future, economic development will mean those people at risk will be much richer and much less vulnerable

Lomborg is highly critical of the climate change consensus, particularly Al Gore, who he challenged to a debate who, in what might be dismissed as a stunt, he challenged to a debate at a conference last spring, which Gore declined (see Wall Street Journal coverage here). He disagrees with Gore in detail in Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming in a chapter that spells out, one by one, his disagreements with Fred Peace, George Monbiot, The Stern Review, the IPCC and Mike Hulme, in a section that reads like a who’s who of the climate consensus. Unlike the climate sceptics, however, he takes less interest in the science than many and happily cites the IPCC as his source for many of his figures, and centres his discussion on the economics, the ethics and the nature of the discourse, acquitting himself well in all areas. His reputation as a heavyweight thinker is well deserved.

Nevertheless, his great strength, of constant analysis of the figures and a heavily rationalist perspective on the economics, is also his great weakness. He is rightly critical of the disdain for engaging in number crunching by other actors like George Monbiot, for instance, who refuses to compare the costs and benefits of mitigation and spending  that money elsewhere in “an amoral means of comparison”. While this should be dismissed as “a weak argument” by not even attempting examine the relative merits of mitigation and other spending (Lomborg, Cool It, 201o edition, p.192) Lomborg fails to explain that economic analyses are underpinned by ethical considerations.

  1. His figures on economic damage are given without significant explanation of how they value human life, and how that varies from place to place (other arguments, like his explanation of heat waves being less dangerous than cold strokes are based on number of lives lost, which is a more sound premise)
  2. While he mentions with the limits of money as a measure of social wellbeing, he fails to get to grips with it in detail: “While people in the rich world perhaps sometimes just tend to scoff…[and claim that] increased richness ‘just means we can buy an extra DVD player’ it neglects that increased income in the developing world means that you can feed your children better, treat them from easily curable diseases and afford an education for them. […] In the developed world…[money] gives you the ability to control your circumstances, because you can weather outside shocks, such as unemployment and illness.” (Cool It, p.54-55) He then points out that over the next century developed-world incomes are expected to increase six times over and developing-world incomes twelve times over. How much increased happiness can the developed world, in particular, seriously expect to get from six times the wealth of the present day? Some academics argue that the link between money and happiness falls off at about £10,000 pounds, worldwide. Whether you believe the detail or not, clearly there is some truth to the assertion that when you’ve got food, shelter, healthcare, education and reasonable security, financial developments on that are at least much less significant
  3. He assumes that natural capital, such as the benefits of biodiversity or a reduced chance of extreme weather are perfectly substitutable for human capital. Would we and future generations like to be richer but more at risk from hurricanes? Perhaps, but surely that is open to the kind of scrutiny that purely economic figures don’t provide

For a more detailed discussion of the issues surrounding the economics and related ethics of climate change, see of Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree on Climate Change (chapter four).

Lomborg has a film coming out to accompany Cool It. That will be one to look forward to.

Review: Information is Beautiful, David McCandless, 2009, published by Collins

Information is Beautiful - visually stunning and a page turner

With 255 pages of diagrams and graphs, including a table of interesting facts about dictators wives (Milosevic met his when she borrowed his library card at school) “Information is Beautiful” by David McCandless is a tribute to the effectiveness of good design and to how interesting raw information is if accessibly presented. I have already lost two friends and a girlfriend  for hours each in this, the consummate coffee-table book, by just showing it to them. It is the consumation of a wider project of making information accessible with graphs and bright colours continued by the associated website, http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/, along with a blog and a facebook group. Particularly interesting is McCandless’s willingness to do graphic design in real-time as facts come out, as he did for the recent UK emergency budget (here).

In the book the miscellany of facts on climate change, shown in colourful visual form, include how individual lifestyle choices can affect carbon emissions on a daily basis (the difference between a thermostat on 24 degrees and on 25 degrees, or between snacking on strawberries or on apples), which countries have kept to and overshot their Kyoto targets and by how much and how far above the current sea-level various cities are. It also has one of the clearest lists of climate sceptic vs. climate consensus arguments present on a concise four-page spread, also available online here.

Its environmental credentials on other issues are also impressive, detailing fish stocks, remaining supplies of key metals and their uses and the extent of recent Amazon dieback.

Images of polar bears are among the more controversial in climate change arguments

One of the problems of communication climate change, undoubtedly like many other issues, is that it aspects are fundamentally technical and therefore somewhat inaccessable. Up to a point one can point to pictures of melting glaciers and polar bears, but the attempt to make climate change easier to understand is caught between the rock of physical science and the hard place of economics, not to mention Kyoto targets, relative emission levels of different countries, per capita emission levels, projected population growth etc. etc.

It is also interesting that climate change has reached the level of popular awareness that it features in passing in so many books not specifically related to global warming, oil supplies or environmental degradation like this, providing tiny windows on the discussion rather than throwing open their doors to the whole topic as many of the major books do. It demonstrates that climate change discussion has become so ubiquitous now, it can be treated (as is the central argument of Mike Hulme’s “Why We Disagree About Climate Change”) as a cultural phenomenon rather than a purely scientific problem.

No doubt the figures are open to scrutiny by intrepid analysts, but as far as making information accessible goes, this book is well ahead of the curve. This kind of design is one to watch for those wanting to get the detail of their message out for the masses, not just the nerds.

Review: The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science. A.W. Montford, 2010, published by Stacey International

For all those who follow major climate change debates, you will know that one of the most heated, yet also one of the most impenetrable set of debates are those surrounding the “hockey stick” graph, originally prsented by Michael Mann et al. in 1998. It featured so prominently in the third IPCC report it caused this author to quip “the whole IPCC report started to look like a locker room, it was so full of hockey sticks” (p.39). “School books told children the Hockey Stick meant that the world has to change” asserts Montford’s book. “Politicians told voters that only they could save people from the threat it demonstrated. Insurers, newspapers and magazines, pamphlets and websites were all in thrall to its message, the Hockey Stick swept all before it” (p.40). This sort of rhetorical flourish goes a long way towards explaining the book’s success!

So what is this graph? In the words of the Guardian newspaper “It is a persuasive image. The “hockey stick” graph shows the average global temperature over the past 1,000 years. For the first 900 years there is little variation, like the shaft of an ice-hockey stick. Then, in the 20th century, comes a sharp rise like the stick’s blade.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/02/hockey-stick-graph-climate-change) Most famously it is this graph (well, sort of – don’t ask) that Al Gore illustrates by getting on a rising platform to show how dramatic the “blade” is in “An Inconvenient Truth” (tragically I can’t seem to find either a YouTube clip or a photo to show this moment – anyone who has one please send it my way).

Michael Mann, creator of the Hockey Stick: Like a climate-science "Rocky", Montford's book suggests two key figures going head to head

It demonstrates the extent that climate change has captured the hearts and minds of the world that there is now a book of the saga, written from the perspective of Steve McIntyre, the retired mining engineer whose analysis and criticism of the graph spawned huge controversy including two senate committees and, after ten years of back-and-forth, was one of the major factors involved in “climategate”. This is a 450 page book fundamentally about statistics and about one graph, and yet, five months after its release it has 48 reviews on amazon.co.uk and another 21 on amazon.com, predictably highly polarised between five-star reviews, typically with a sceptic axe to grind and a smattering of one- or two-star reviews with an overt strong anti-sceptic slant.

Steve McIntyre: The retired mining engineer taking issue with Hockey sticks for more than 10 years

And the book itself? Good, accessible, engaging, a thriller, a page turner. The bias so obvious you get quickly used to it and rolling your eyes when it’s too pronounced and learn to accept that this is a story with heroes and villains. Almost by not claiming to be impartial it seems to dodge the accusation of not being so. It raises many interesting points, not least about the validity of peer review that, rightly or wrongly, is one of the holy grails of the climate consensus. The “climategate” section, the last 50 pages, is an add-on that mostly quotes from lots of the e-mails with a bit of narrative linking them and relatively little reflection, and so is perhaps the most balanced section.

Frustratingly, many of the issues raised are so complex that even though the book explains the statistics the explanations always seem to suspiciously validate McIntyre and damn Mann and his supporters (the “hockey team”), and those of us who are not statistics professors are left having to take the author’s word from it on a variety of issues beyond our understanding. Coming away from it, I find myself wanting to read the other side: when another 450-page book comes out on the same graph, I’ll be first in line.

McEwan: A novelist contributes his 2 cents to the climate change discussion (photo from McEwan's website: http://www.ianmcewan.com)

Rather unnervingly, in reading Ian McEwan’s “Solar” yesterday, I saw the subject of this blog and my postgraduate

dissertation brought up by a fictional academic talking to the fictional Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard.

“I’m interested in the forms of narrative that climate science has generated. It’s an epic story, of course, with a million authors.”

Better still is the scientist’s grumpy reaction – “Beard was suspicious…People who went on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value.” (p.147) The character is also hilariously annoying and seems to completely miss the point of the speech then given about climate change in order to analyse it from a literary perspective. As you might imagine, dear reader, this gave me some pause for thought!

At the same time it is the innovations of an earnest, workaholic nerd that show the most signs of social benefit, compared to the farcical artists working on conceptual dance pieces and ice-sculptures of polar bears.

Questioning the way reality is viewed does not mean a complete disregard for some opinions and arguments being better to others. If “Solar” shows anything, though, it’s that the institutions of climate management are influenced by the range of unscientific human emotions we all experience: the protagonist of McEwan’s novel throws his full weight behind an urban wind-farm project, knowing it to be a farcical waste of time and resources because to back down would be “a personal disaster” (p.28).

One of the interesting things about Solar to me is that it tells the fictional story of a climate scientist, who is a thoroughly dislikable character. This makes a refreshing contrast to the many personal stories already used in the climate change literature. Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Truth”) and James Hansen (“Storms of My Grandchildren” – 2010) spring to mind. On the one hand, the personal story structures the otherwise dry-as-a-bone science. On the other, like all good Victorian novels, there’s a sense of the main character charging forward into the world, making mistakes, learning the error of his ways and coming good despite his flaws. It’s all well and good, but can seem more than a little staged.

Perhaps it’s the Englishman in me, but when people start talking about their beliefs and convictions, and saving the planet, despite whole-hearted agreement intellectually, a little bit of me dies inside. This is a public-relations circle the green movement will find hard to square. Perhaps we need to find more cynical, knowing, self-serving and world-weary climate-change spokespeople to hook the masses?