Tag Archive: Monbiot

A recent exchange in The Washington Post reminds us all that in sometimes in PR, as in life, the best defence is a good offence.

Michael Mann: Controversial and adversarial paleoclimatologist

About a month ago, the controversial U.S. climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in The Washington Post attacking the politicians who are making threatening noises towards him and his colleagues. Mann argues that senior U.S. politicians are playing politics with what should be objective science. Senator Joe Barton has written a response completely ignoring this argument and framing the discussion instead in terms freedom of speech and freedom to challenge scientists.

Rarely is it more clear that public debates are won and lost not with different answers to the same question, but by arguing over the nature of the question. Mann has pushing the debate towards greater scrutiny of the right-wing attack dogs that threaten climate science. By pointing to this undue politicisation, the debate is dragged away from bickering over scientific detail and from the community of climate scientists constantly fending off attacks that steadily chip away at their credibility.

Joe Barton: Republican Congressman from Texas in the news recently for attacking the White House's "shakedown" of BP

Climate scientists, like many scientists, are often too happy to bury themselves in their work and ignore the arguments going on around them. The climategate fiasco of last December was largely a result of inaction by the scientists under fire failing to open up and get their message out quickly enough, a classic case of surrendering control of the conversation.

Hoggan the Spotlight: Expert Perspective

James Hoggan, the CEO of the PR firm Hoggan & Associates and the man behind an award winning climate change blog (pictured below) puts it, good PR involves three stages

  • Do the right thing
  • Be seen to be doing the right thing
  • Don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up

With the climate science community we are so often left to wonder what happened to number 2. (See here for Hoggan’s blog’s take on the Washington post exchange.)

On a similar note, after existing for more than twenty years the high profile Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have announced in their most recent press release, which is about as quotable as most tax returns, that they are going to put together a communication strategy.

It’s about time.

James Hoggan: Expert in both good communications and the "Darth Vader" PR of some on the right-wing of US politics

IPCC Plays Defence

After a year that has encompassed “climategate” and the IPCC’s own “Amazongate”, this seems long overdue. The IPCC has long kept its head down and played a purely defensive game in its PR, and while good defense is important, it keeps the conversation on “can the IPCC be trusted?” and “is climate science credible?”. Some proportion of those reading that debate are bound to come down on the side of “no”. If the attacks are fended off well, that may be 20% rather than 80%, but it is still lost ground.

It is widely known in insider circles that the 4th IPCC Assessment Report (2007), the most recent, was written at the conservative end of climate science to avoid giving a platform for its critics. In a 3,000 page report, however, there were bound to be weaknesses found sooner or later. On top of this recent ad hominem attacks (attacks on people to undermine arguments – “playing the man and not the ball”), on its chairman Rajendra Pachauri show that even the defence is not enough. (It is worth reading the column in which George Monbiot lays waste to the claims made against Pachauri.)

While I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the IPCC, say, take out a set of attack adverts against their detractors in true US political style, it’s good to see someone showing a bit of fight-back.

Channel 4’s “What the Green Movement Got Wrong” presents a fairly convincing and useful narrative of the problems with the green movement. The detail, however, was highly questionable, and the programme drew superficial conclusions from a good starting point.

Last night’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong told the story of an environmentalist movement too caught up in its own out-of-date orthodoxies and failing to realistically engage with the challenges of the modern world. Particularly under scrutiny were their histories on nuclear power and on GM foods. It was claimed that environmentalists had over-egged the dangers of nuclear power and of GM foods and that this was harming the people of the world by misrepresenting the realities. In the subsequent debate it was clear this caricatured the position of those under scrutiny, particularly Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Their objections to nuclear power and GM in some contexts was due to specific concerns, including the cost of nuclear and the risks of reducing crop diversity and becoming dependent on big US companies business with reliance on GM.

Environmentalists Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand, who were at the heart of the documentary, were also consistently shot down on factual inaccuracies throughout the subsequent debate by the very environmentalists they claim were ill-informed and dogmatic. In particular Greenpeace representative Dr. Doug Parr shot down Stewart Brand for claiming that Greenpeace campaigned for a worldwide ban on DDT that was later achieved. His failure to provide a source for either claim, Greenpeace’s campaign or a resulting worldwide ban, is being chased by firebrand journalist George Monbiot, who has updated his website during the day with his correspondence.

(As an aside, there was also a revealing criticism from George Monbiot, both in the debate and since on his blog, that the film suffered from being drunk on techo-fixes without widening the discussion to structural problems. While undoubtedly making a good point, this did not undermine the central thesis of the programme.)

Factual questions aside, the film set up a dichotomy between “old” and “new” environmentalists that simply doesn’t exist. Do different self-defined “greens” have a variety of views on policy issues? Of course. But the idea that a new consensus is emerging or that an old one existed is, at best, out of date: there have long been different shades of green (and I’ve written before that to my mind the most useful tool for looking at this is Clapp and Dauvergne’s definitions of market liberal greens, institutionalist greens, bioenvironmentalists and social greens.)

I’ve written recently on the report by Deutsche Bank on climate scepticism. Add to that initiatives by Ernst and Young, and Zurich Insurance and PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the oft-cited reports on abatement cost curves by McKinsey and a picture emerges of strong corporate environmentalism making a real contribution to shaping a new world. (No doubt some of the same firms are under scrutiny by other environmentalists, especially social greens, and that is a process of scrutiny to be highly praised. No doubt there are times when green action and greenwash become confused, but let us not shoot for hypocrisy the chain smoker proud of cutting back, as the chronically self-righteous are so often tempted to do. I digress, however.)

My experience is that there are tribal greens who share certain orthodoxies and for whom beliefs follow identity rather than reason. Where that is the case, there is a need for introspection and change on their part. The idea that this is blighting the environmental movement, however, is nonsense. When Greenpeace representatives speak at events, they are almost always extremely smart, specific and nuanced in their opinions and, most of all, well-informed.

Overall, the argument was not without merit. The green movement should avoid becoming an isolated group bound to its own orthodoxies, especially when the wider world is now relatively sympathetic to its beliefs about climate change and sustainability more general.

Particularly telling was Lynas’s comment “We’re losing the war for public opinion. The response of greens to that wall of public indifference is to shout louder and in some cases to exaggerate. And that of course makes you very vulnerable to a backlash.” The representative from the pollsters IPSOS Mori in the subsequent debate supported this argument, describing apocalyptic stories as “ a turn off”, a truth increasingly widely accepted by campaigners.

The recent 10:10 campaign is perhaps the clearest evidence of this. This premise, however, is not evidence enough to wholeheartedly embrace nuclear power, GM foods and geoengineering as the programme suggests. These are ongoing discussions in which Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups will continue to play a major role.

What the Green Movement Got Wrong and the subsequent debate will stay on the Channel 4 website until early December

As well as the trap of believing that climate change is not certain enough to merit action, we must escape the trap of believing it is too late. The science just isn’t that certain. What, then, for those who (almost) said Copenhagen was our last hope?

Lovelock: It's already too late for mitigation

Of the big names discussing climate change, only one, to my knowledge, has announced that it is too late for mitigation, and that is James Lovelock, who’s most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, argues that we must already look only to adaptation to preserve civilisation. Lovelock, the man behind Gaia theory, is smart and insightful has a good grasp of the facts but he comes from a point of view that some academics (Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005) term “bioenvironmentalist” – broadly speaking it means he puts non-interference in the planet first at all costs. Besides the bias that gives him he is also just one voice of many who put the point of no return at many different levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and we must recognise that this is an ongoing conversation. It will be a long time before despair is certain, just as it will be a long time since a safe future climate is assured.

Many others, however, have argued that the point of no return is now or very, very shortly, including NASA’s influential James Hansen, leading activist Mark Lynas and Guardian journalist George Monbiot. Monbiot led the proverbial charge at Copenhagen and all but made it clear he considered this mankind’s last stand. In one subsequent article he pondered “I wonder whether the government of Denmark, whose atrocious management of the conference contributed to its failure, would have tried harder if its people knew that in a few hundred years they won’t have a country any more” and in another concluded: “Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you, not that we really cared. The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.” Moreover in a recent article reflecting on the limits of achievements so far, despair seemed to be setting in to his rhetoric.

Monbiot: Managing the rhetoric carefully but risking crying "wolf" too often

I said earlier he “all but” claims this as mankind’s last stand. He wisely avoids saying anything that nails him too strongly to such a position, I suspect partly because he understands the science too well to believe that it is certainly too late now, but let this blog make it clear that the uncertainties in climate science make it impossible to make such statements with certainty at this stage. It may even already be too late to prevent a set of planet-warming positive feedbacks, or we may have more time than we think, but these are dangerous risks to be complacent about.

This truth puts Monbiot and the others in the position of gently backtracking from an implication that any one point is now or never. It will be hard call to make for them: for those less masterful in their prose every time they say it, it may be true and they may even believe it, but if they cry “wolf” at every conference or major bill passing then their credibility will go down. Making dramatic predictions at this stage make it harder in five years time when the next battles need to be won. No doubt there will continue to be cases of extreme weather, but these are always impossible to connect absolutely to the climate change, and the scientific community are rightly reserved about doing so (see the work of Roger Pielke Jr.): such an overstatement risks being pilloried.

As a result, the commentariat need to find new ways to persuade the public that the big agreements matter, without making claims they can’t stand by. Like the proverbial poker player, they mustn’t bet their whole hand each time.It’s a hard message to sell – “we need progress because it just might be too late this time, rather than last time or next time”. It will involve the language of risk management, another tough thing to get across when news headlines lend themselves to bold statements. Those are the challenges for talking about climate change when the big steps forward are promised.

Good hunting.