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Global Warming Suspicions and Confusions
published in znet may 11/07
In recent years, a number of important contributions have influenced the growing debate on global warming. Paul Baer and Tom Athanasiou’s book, Dead Heat, from a few years ago, was excellent. Noam Chomsky’s latest book, Failed States, mentions global warming as one of the three more urgent problems humanity faces (the others being war and the lack of democratic institutions to deal with problems). George Monbiot’s new book, Heat, provides a workable set of proposals for stabilizing the climate without draconian sacrifice (except commercial flight).
Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth cuts back and forth between cogent explanations of climate science and self-aggrandizement (Gore on the farm, Gore walking to the stage, Gore changing planes at the airport, Gore doing product placement typing on his Mac computer). Properly filtered, however, it provides an excellent introductory lecture on climate change. I wish that it had come from someone else, someone who hadn’t vice-presided over the Iraq sanctions regime and the bombing of Yugoslavia. But the fact that Gore made it popular doesn’t make it a sham. The terms of discussion for any major problem are usually set by elites, with the rest of us trying to sort out truth from falsehood and sensible policy from corporate propaganda after the fact.
Scientific issues, like any issues, take work and time to understand. Those who can’t take the time to delve into the issues, and no one can delve into everything, look for credible sources. To leftists, Gore is simply not a credible source. He is seen as an apologist for the powerful interests he served while in office and callous about the people who suffered under his rule. Furthermore, leftists are suspicious of any elite consensus, including a scientific one. They know that dubious science is often trotted out to state why some regressive policy or other is justified. Leftists therefore need people credible to them to go back and do what Gore and Flannery did – to explain the basics of climate science. Much of what they would explain would be the same as Gore does, and the same ways – but it would not come from a tainted source, nor would it be tainted by political campaigning. Both Baer/Athanasiou’s Dead Heat and Monbiot’s Heat accept the scientific consensus on global warming and do not spend much time on the basic science, leaving that field to people like Gore and popular science writers like Tim Flannery, who wrote The Weather Makers.
The first problem for leftists trying to understand climate science is that they cannot trust Gore and they cannot automatically trust the scientific consensus. The next problem is that the best-known proposed solutions for dealing with the problem are flawed. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, is completely inadequate for stabilizing emissions. Carbon emissions trading and markets are designed to provide incentives to corporate emitters. Biofuels, in the form of palm oil and sugarcane plantations, are helping to displace peasants through paramilitary massacre in Colombia, contributing to dangerous food shortages, and in any case cause CO2 emissions just like fossil fuels do. If credible science is mixed with dubious pro-corporate policy, which is what Gore has to offer, leftists might feel the sensible thing to do is reject the whole package.
They need not do so, however. Monbiot’s book, Heat, is principally about climate policy, and what policies would be necessary in order to stabilize the climate. He is not an advocate for carbon markets, which he recognizes as providing incentives to corporate polluters. What he does advocate, as Baer & Athanasiou advocated in Dead Heat, is a per-capita emissions quota, the same for everyone in the world. If only a certain amount of total CO2 emission is compatible with a stable climate, then the right to emit ought to be the same for everyone. Baer & Athanasiou’s book, and their website, ecoequity.org, discuss a stabilization policy based on a per capita emissions quota. They argue that, because people in poor countries emit much less than their right and people in rich countries emit much more, a credible stabilization policy would include both reduction of emissions in the rich countries and the reduction of global inequality. Monbiot’s book focuses on feasible technological and policy changes for bringing the CO2 emissions of first-world countries down to the per-capita quota. By showing that the worst emitters could achieve the necessary reduction without significant suffering, Monbiot debunks the notion that stabilizing the climate requires brutal austerity or the continuation of third-world poverty.
Monbiot is also clear on another point: that the impacts of global warming, like environmental problems in general, are not the same for everyone. Many environmentalists, including climate activists, believe that because we all have to live on the planet, we can all agree that environmental problems must be solved. But the wealthy and powerful have always been able to insulate themselves from the effects of environmental problems. They appropriate the territories and resources they want and leave others to starve or die. The hardest hit peoples, in countries like Bangladesh and Ethiopia, are those who are already suffering tremendously. Hurricane Katrina in the United States is another case of how “natural” disaster does not unite elites with people but, instead, can be used to entrench ever more regressive relations.
If elites also control the parameters of discussion on a problem such as global warming, they can be expected to advocate not solving it, as they know their interests will be served regardless. If elites are advocating solutions, they will advocate solutions that will protect their interests, whether these actually solve the problem or not. Advocacy of ignoring or denying the problem is the model for parts of the petroleum industry, right-wing politicians and movements, and their PR machinery, which Monbiot calls “the Denial Industry”. Advocacy of “solutions” that serve elite interests is the model for advocates of carbon markets and watered-down versions of Kyoto.
This leaves leftists, who oppose elite agendas, with two options. First, their suspicion of the sources on the science can lead them to the position that the scientific consensus is wrong. Alternatively, they can accept the science and then reject elite proposals for dealing with the problem and propose alternative policy suggestions in light of their own values and priorities, which is what I believe Monbiot has done, and Baer/Athanasiou before him.
Recent essays by leftists Alexander Cockburn, Denis Rancourt, and David Noble, in contrast, take the first position. They are reacting to a recent change in elite strategy on the problem of global warming. The initial elite strategy was that of complete denial, and it was successful in delaying any action on climate change for crucial years. The recent change of strategy by part of the elite (prompted perhaps by increasing evidence in every field that global warming is happening) seems to be to try to co-opt and control the discussion, if not of the problem itself, then of the possible solutions for it. These three activists (Cockburn, Rancourt, & Noble, or CRN) have reasonable suspicions of this rapid change of elite strategy and its expression in media hype about climate change. Their reactions, however, are in error. If their views are adopted by many leftists, elites will be able to claim that leftists are anti-science and anti-green, when what people most need are sensible green proposals that are also in accord with values of justice, equality, and solidarity.
In an essay on Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn makes a number of claims about climate science that indicate a dismissal of the scientific consensus. He claims there is “zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend,” for example. But the mechanism by which atmospheric CO2 causes warming (“the greenhouse effect”) is well understood. So is the fact that anthropogenic production of CO2 is increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. And so, too, is the current warming trend, which Cockburn acknowledges. Cockburn seeks to break the chain of reasoning (from CO2 causing warming, to anthropogenic increases of CO2 in the atmosphere contributing to warming) by suggesting that anthropogenic emissions of CO2 do not change atmospheric CO2 levels. He does so by referring to some data on CO2 emissions and CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from the 1920s and 1930s that say when anthropogenic emissions were low due to the Great Depression CO2 in the atmosphere did not change. He interprets this to mean that “it is impossible to assert that the increase in atmospheric CO2 stems from human burning of fossil fuels.” But it is the very fact that CO2 is long-lived in the atmosphere (compared to water vapour, for example) that makes emissions of it such a serious problem. Even if the data he presents are accurate (the most reliable records of atmospheric CO2 begin in the 1960s) they cannot be taken to mean what he says they do. They could, instead, simply mean that there is a lag between changes in CO2 emission and changes in atmospheric concentration. One analogy a reader of the article at realclimate.org suggested was this: if you are filling a bathtub and turn off the tap, the bathtub does not instantly empty, nor does the fact that it doesn’t empty make it impossible to assert a connection between the tap and the amount of water in the tub.
Cockburn was also answered in more general terms by Monbiot, who cautioned against dismissing an entire body of science with a series of fairly random assertions. Some of Cockburn’s specific scientific claims were answered by climate scientists at realclimate.org. Cockburn was using his scientific claims as part of a larger argument that the market in CO2 emissions was like the market in papal indulgences during medieval times – a release for people’s consciences that made profits for elites (the church in medieval times, corporations today) while exploiting people’s guilt (for sin then or emissions now) without fundamentally changing anything. This valid point about carbon markets is thus combined with a dismissal of climate science and global warming as a serious problem using a number of false and discredited claims as evidence. This is too bad, because it will make readers doubt his other insights, and it abets the climate deniers.
Denis Rancourt, a physics professor and activist at the University of Ottawa, published a similar essay on his blog some weeks ago. In it, he sets out some of the standard scientific claims presented by denial industry spokespeople. These include notions that water vapor and solar radiation are the real culprit, not CO2 emissions, that warming is not such a big deal, and other arguments. Realclimate.org explain how water vapor is a greenhouse gas, and an important one, but it is much more short-lived in the atmosphere than CO2, and this makes it a “feedback”, not a “forcing” like CO2 is. Realclimate.org also explains solar forcing: There are fluctuations in solar radiation, but they are not sufficient to explain the warming trend, nor would even the presence of significant solar radiation fluctuations make CO2 irrelevant. They also explain the lag between CO2 and temperature in the glacial record. Another useful resource to accompany Rancourt’s essay is this collection of Q/A on “How to talk to a climate skeptic”, by Coby Beck.
Rancourt’s essay ends with a long list of “selected supporting references”, but there are no citations for his individual claims, and therefore no way of knowing what references he has selected or whether it actually supports what he is saying. In between making his own scientific claims, which we are supposed to accept on his authority as a physicist, he argues that scientists are not to be believed and the scientific consensus is not to be trusted because “scientists are simple beings” who follow the herd. There is a contradiction here, between Rancourt making scientific claims in his blog, which we are supposed to accept because he is a scientist, and his attacking all scientists and all of science as conformist and conservative, which we are to accept on his authority, perhaps because of his inside knowledge of scientists.
I disagree with Rancourt on this entire issue of science. While science can be manipulated and a few scientists can always be found to provide the right statement for the right price (whether on climate, tobacco, or pharmaceuticals) I believe there are some things that can be known about the natural world, and scientists have uncovered some of these things, including about the climate system. How this knowledge is spun or used or ignored is another matter. But the appeal of science is that, given time and effort, we can understand things about the world. While this is no reason to completely defer to scientists, it is reason to give weight to arguments that are supported by the cumulative efforts of thousands of people who have spent time and care looking into an issue - more weight, in any case, than arguments recycled from the petroleum-funded denial industry.
In contrast, Rancourt’s anti-science arguments suggest that there is no way to get at an objective understanding of the climate or, by extension, any other situation. Rancourt leaves readers to accept only his authority. The political or policy core of Rancourt’s essay is, again, an attack on CO2 markets. He advocates various leftist policies, and argues that leftists should advocate these without reference to CO2 emissions or global warming, which is, to him, a dangerous diversion. By combining discredited scientific claims about global warming, an attack on science itself, and leftist positions on numerous issues, Rancourt has associated decent left positions with discredited and false claims and arguments.
David Noble, a friend of Rancourt’s, a professor at York University and an activist, was, according to Rancourt’s blog, inspired by Rancourt to write about the “global climate coup” for Canadian Dimension. Noble’s argument is that global warming politics have derailed the global justice movement and diverted it into the dead end of CO2 markets. He shows how elite think-tanks and corporations have endorsed “solutions” to global warming that will increase their profits and power. His research on the corporate connections of various groups, first of the denialist persuasion, and then of the market-solutions persuasion, is useful. But he loses most of his credibility in his introduction, which implies that global warming is a funny joke:
“Don’t breathe. There’s a total war on against CO2 emissions, and you are releasing CO2 with every breath. The multi-media campaign against global warming now saturating our senses, which insists that an increasing CO2 component of greenhouse gases is the enemy, takes no prisoners: you are either with us or you are with the”deniers.” No one can question the new orthodoxy or dare risk the sin of emission.”
His credibility is further harmed by his conclusion, in which he calls Monbiot a dupe of the elite group that is creating hype about global warming, whose message Monbiot “unwittingly peddles with such passion.” Noble calls Monbiot’s book “embarrassing in its funneled focus and its naive deference to the authority of science... as if there was such a thing as science that was not also politics.” Unlike Cockburn and Rancourt, Noble does not get into dubious scientific claims, but he does present global warming as if it is a diversionary elite campaign, or simply a joke, and not a serious problem. He could have made his case that elites are trying to divert attention from actual solutions to the problem (the substantive part of Monbiot’s book, only the introduction of which Noble quotes) and towards creating new markets and new privileges and powers for themselves without so flippantly dismissing concern about the climate, presenting that concern as nothing more than an elite agenda, or suggesting that all science was politicized. By doing so, he associates a useful critique of elite cooptation of climate politics with a misrepresentation of the problem, its urgency, and the potential for solutions.
The strength of Monbiot’s book is its presentation of a set of policies that could stabilize the climate in accord with values of justice and equity. Monbiot is as hard on phony capitalist climate schemes as Cockburn, Rancourt, or Noble (CRN) are, but he does not rest his political analysis on an attack on a body of science (as Cockburn and Rancourt do), or on an attack on science itself (as Rancourt and Noble do). The problem with these authors’ mixing sensible policy proposals and cautions with false scientific claims and an anti-science tone is analogous to the problem of Gore’s mixing of sensible science with elite agendas. If suspicion of Gore and elite CO2 market advocacy can drive leftists like CRN towards a position denying that global warming is a problem, then a reliance on discredited science or anti-science positions by leftists like CRN can drive people away from leftists (and leftists certainly don’t need more ways of driving people away). The need is for leftists to understand and explain the science of global warming and to think of and advocate proposals for solving the problem in accord with values of equality and solidarity. Both Monbiot and Baer/Athanasiou have done some of that work. Instead CRN reject the science and dismiss the solutions like Kyoto or CO2 markets not because they are inadequate (which they are) or because they serve elite agendas (which they do), but because they conclude that there is no problem to solve in the first place. CRN are trying to open the wrong debate. Rather than a debate over the validity of discredited scientific positions, what is needed is a debate on how to resist the elite agendas that have led to the warming, then to its denial, and that now seek to co-opt movements for change. On this, I hope CRN might eventually agree.
Justin Podur is a writer and editor for ZNet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.