Climate scientists attacked for 30 plus years. Sure, so what is to be done? #action #climate

So, as per my recent Conversation article, the climate scientists have been attacked for (more than) thirty years. The UNFCCC is a hopeless case (see slightly-less recent Conversation article). It is easy to talk about how everything is fubarred, and what am I against. This below expands on the theme of attacks on climate scientists, talks a bit about what am I for, then critiques it, then critique that critique. It concludes with “so what does this MEAN, here, TODAY?

This expansion below is in no way a criticism or rebuke of the editor or the editing process.  I’ve added in bits to the Conversation article and put them in red. At the end of the article, I’ve added a whole bunch of new stuff, marking clearly where that starts.

Thirty years ago, in a small Swedish city called Sundsvall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first major report.

Even then, the major dilemmas facing those who sought rapid action were clear. An account by Jeremy Leggett, who had thrown in a well-paid job as a geologist for Shell to become Greenpeace’s climate campaigner, reported the events of that first summit, including an encounter with coal industry lobbyist Don Pearlman.

They had their heads down, copies of the draft negotiating text for the IPCC final report open in front of them. Pearlman was pointing at the text, and talking in a forceful growl… As I walked past, I saw him pointing to a particular paragraph and I heard him say, quite distinctly, ‘if we can cut a deal here…’

Although it seems so naïve now, I was shocked.

Days later, a delegate from the Pacific island of Kiribati pleaded with the conference for a breakthrough in the negotiations.

Concerted international action is needed to drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels. The time to start is now. In the low-lying nations, the threat… of global warming and sea level rise is frightening.“

He paused before concluding.

I hope this meeting will not fail us. Thank you.

Shortly afterwards the US delegation “tabled a catalogue of attempted emasculations” of the text. Along with the Saudi and Soviet delegations, representatives of the richest and most powerful country in the world “chipped away at the draft, watering down the sense of alarm in the wording, beefing up the aura of uncertainty”.

It would be a painful three decades for people anxious to see action on climate change. For the scientists investigating the problem, it would often be a personal battle against powerful interests.

A group of people cross a shallow lagoon at dusk in the tropics.
Kiribati is an island nation that is at risk of disappearing due to sea level rise. Nava Fedaeff/Shutterstock

The path to the summit

The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, had been worrying scientists since the 1970s. The discovery of the “ozone hole” above Antarctica had given atmospheric scientists enormous credibility and clout among the public, and an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals causing the problem, was swiftly signed.

But as Shardul Agrawala notes in his “Context and Early Origins of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”(1998)

“the US had a huge stake in the climate problem. It was the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Also, any measures at abatement of future emissions could significantly threaten its economic interests. Powerful fossil fuel lobbies with active support from a Republican White House were strongly opposed to any kind of action on climate change” (Agrawala, 1998:  609)

“Due to lack of agreement, and for reasons that suited their own ideologies and agendas (see Section 3.3), a compromise was reached amongst participating agencies with the US recommending that an ‘intergovernmental mechanism’ be set-up to conduct scientific assessment of climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 611)

The Reagan White House worried that a treaty on CO₂ might happen as quickly, and set about ensuring the official scientific advice guiding leaders at the negotiations was under at least partial control.

Agrawala again:

“The US position was communicated to the WMO Secretariat and it helped shape resolution 9 of the Tenth WMO Congress which met in May 1987. This resolution recognized the need for an inter-disciplinary and multi-agency approach and asked the Executive Council of WMO ‘to arrange for appropriate mechanisms to undertake further development of scientific and other aspects of greenhouse gases’.
The US also strongly influenced the WMO Executive Council resolution a week later, which in response to the call from the Congress, requested the Secretary General of WMO, ‘in coordination with the Executive Director of UNEP to establish an intergovernmental mechanism to carry out internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, impact and potential timing of climate change’. Shortly thereafter, UNEP’s Governing Body welcomed the WMO initiative and asked its Executive Director to work with WMO on establishing such an intergovernmental assessment body.
This constitutes the famous ‘I’ of what was to later become the IPCC and is the single most critical element in its design. It is the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC that gives its assessments a special niche, distinct from the myriad other assessments and vendors. According to Jean Ripert, founder chairman of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) who chaired the negotiations for a climate convention, the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC was in large part responsible for educating many government bureaucrats about the problem which made them more willing to come to the negotiating table. This, according to Ripert, was key to the signing of FCCC in 1992 (Ripert, 1997). However, having an intergovernmental status has imposed significant costs also: IPCC assessment summaries are widely regarded as being politically negotiated, which has, at times, undermined their credibility” (Agrawala, 1998: .611)

Meanwhile, another participant, Michael Oppenheimer, suggests

US support was probably critical to IPCC’s establishment. And why did the US government support it? Assistant Undersecretary of State Bill Nitze wrote to me a few years later saying that our group’s activities played a significant role. Among other motivations, the US government saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the policy agenda.

I suspect that the Reagan Administration believed that, in contrast to our group, most scientists were not activists, and would take years to reach any conclusion on the magnitude of the threat. Even if they did, they probably would fail to express it in plain English. The US government must have been quite surprised when IPCC issued its first assessment at the end of 1990, stating clearly that human activity was likely to produce an unprecedented warming.

So emerged the intergovernmental – rather than international – panel on climate change, in 1988.

Already before Sundsvall, in 1989, figures in the automotive and fossil fuel industries of the US had set up the Global Climate Coalition to argue against rapid action and to cast doubt on the evidence. Alongside thinktanks, such as the George Marshall Institute, and trade bodies, such as the Western Fuels Association, it kept up a steady stream of publishing in the media – including a movie – to discredit the science.

In a February 1991 letter to the vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, physicist Robert Jastrow crowed , “It is generally considered in the scientific community that the Marshall report was responsible for the Administration’s opposition to carbon taxes and restrictions on fossil fuel consumption. Quoting New Scientist magazine, he reported that the Marshall Institute “is still the controlling influence in the White House.” (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:190) 

 

But their efforts to discourage political commitment were only partially successful. The scientists held firm, and a climate treaty was agreed in 1992. And so attention turned to the scientists themselves.

The Serengeti strategy

In 1996, there were sustained attacks on climate scientist Ben Santer, who had been responsible for synthesising text in the IPCC’s second assessment report. He was accused of having “tampered with” wording and somehow “twisting” the intent of IPCC authors by Fred Seitz of the Global Climate Coalition.

In the late 1990s, Michael Mann, whose famous “hockey stick” diagram of global temperatures was a key part of the third assessment report, came under fire from right-wing thinktanks and even the Attorney General of Virginia. Mann called this attempt to pick on scientists perceived to be vulnerable to pressure “the Serengeti strategy”.

As Mann himself wrote

By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of “anti-science” to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defence difficult. It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd.

As the evidence became ever more compelling, the attacks on scientists escalated.

In 2001, Exxon was reported to be pressuring the new Bush administration to get rid of Bob Watson, the British climate scientists who was then chair of the IPCC. Exxon appears to have been successful because Watson didn’t get a second term.   (see here)

The Bush Administration tried to silence Hansen in 2006 – there is an entire book – Censoring Science – about this. 

In late 2009, just before the Copenhagen climate summit, emails among climate scientists were hacked and released. They were carefully selected to make it seem as if scientists were guilty of scaremongering. The so-called “climategate” scandal was not to blame for Copenhagen’s failure, but it kept climate deniers energised and helped muddy the waters enough to make it seem as if legitimate doubt persisted over the scientific consensus.

And at “just before 2 a.m. on February 19, 2011 the war on climate science showed its grip on the U.S. House of Representatives as it voted to eliminate U.S. funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Republican majority, on a mostly party-line vote of 244-179, went on record as essentially saying that it no longer wishes to have the IPCC prepare its comprehensive international climate science assessments. ” [sourcesourcesource] (It was a throwing-red-meat-to-the-base thing. It never got through the Senate).

What next?

Thanks to COVID-19, the next IPCC assessment report probably won’t be delivered before the delayed conference in Glasgow at the end of 2021. There probably won’t be anything in it that tells us more than what we already know – CO₂ levels are rising, the consequences are piling up, and campaigns for delaying meaningful action have been spectacularly successful for the last 30 years.

Some scientists, including Columbia University professor James Hansen, argue that the agonising efforts of scientists to avoid provoking accusations of alarmism have led to an innate optimism bias. The official science reported by the IPCC may in some cases be a cautious underestimate. It’s likely worse – much worse – than we think.

If the last three decades have taught the international community anything, it’s that “the science” is not a single, settled entity which, presented properly, will spur everyone to action. There are no shortcuts to the technological, economic, political and cultural changes needed to tackle climate change. That was true 30 years ago in Sundsvall. The only thing that has changed is the time in which we have left to do anything.

END OF THE CONVERSATION ARTICLE.  Everything that follows has not had the benefit of their editing. They cannot be held responsible for owt!

So the obvious question at the end of this litany of despair, about the way that scientists have been tackled is “what is to be done”. And this is also the same question that you could ask at the end of my September 2019 piece about the history of the UNFCCCmy September 2019 piece about the history of the UNFCCCmy September 2019 piece about the history of the UNFCCC, published on the Conversation.

And I will admit that the answer I’m about to give you does not satisfy me.,because there are consequences for not having achieved the emissions reductions that were required. We’re no longer talking about avoiding dangerous climate change – that is baked in. What we have to talk about then is how the pain is shared equitably, which may not mean equally.

Now, right there, three kinds of people will be up in arms. The first group I don’t care about – the ones who deny that climate change is a thing. The second group – and there is  overlap  or a sliding scale  – are the techno-utopians, the Bjorn Lomborg school of people who think that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with more technology. Maybe they ought to read a little bit about anti-reflexivity, and see themselves in the mirror. And the third group are those who say, “Oh, you must never talk about pain or danger, because this will somehow scare people off.” Well, that’s to keep therefore telling fairy stories about how everything might be okay. That’s indistinguishable in my opinion, from the techno optimist bollocks. And I would rather treat people like adults and hope that they’re capable of understanding that the world isn’t how they would like it to be, and it won’t be like how they would like it to be.

So having said that, let me give you my unconvincing answers.

What climate change calls us to do, what we are required to do, as citizens, especially those of us with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, and the training to punch through lies, and the time to do it, and to communicate it…  is to punch through the lies and to communicate and to movement build rather than mobilise.

And my one key distinction that I would like everyone to make is between the mobilizations such as the 2014 Climate March in New York, and the actual movement-building.  There can be overlap, but these are distinct, and occasionally the mobilising gets in the way of movement-building, because it allows people to tick the box. “I’ve been on that March. I’ve sent my activists credibility tokens. And therefore, it’s now up to our lords and masters to take action.”

And this is tacitly said, even by people who know that their lords and masters have no interest in and no capacity to fix the problems that they themselves have been causing. This is what Camus would probably have called bad faith.

So responding to climate change is going to require the wisdom as opposed to the ignorance of crowds. It’s going to require daily local, regional national, international action as opposed to words. It is gonna require that we break out of the boxes, the mind forged manacles, that we resist the blandishments of not just the big corporations and the big NGOs, but also the voluntaristic millenarian “Everything must and can change now,” rhetorics of some of these newest social movement organisations and yes I am looking at you, Extinction Rebellion.

This is both an emergency and a long drawn-out process and we need to learn this preparedness for the very difficult changes to come will require sustained –  and therefore sustainable – radical (that does not mean violent, that does not mean stupid) action, at every level.

So what kind of superheroes can do this? There are no superheroes. We are the ones we have been waiting for for a very long time.

Specifically, better organisations that are able to welcome new people, make use of the skills and talents they have, and help those individuals learn new ones.  New understandings of how incumbents have resisted change not just through outright denial but also scams, like carbon trading and carbon offsetting, and, quote, green capitalism, unquote.

Also a recognition that the methods of the 19th and 20th century brought us the horrors of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Great Leap Forward, etc. We’re going to need new tools, we can’t go back and try the old ones again and again, which is what we’ve been doing.

Critique of the above

So the critique of this is fairly obvious, or the critiques plural. One is so already too late. Even if this reinvigorated or invigorated, intelligent civil society sprang into action, there are certain laws of physics and the consequences of 30 years of inaction are that it is already, quote too late, unquote, that we’re going to hit four degrees, that agriculture becomes impossible that there’s mass starvation, one or two nuclear wars and the collapse of human civilization, which we’ve seen in Hollywood films and we’ve seen in books. This is a, you know, a favourite science fiction trope. I strongly suspect the reality will be slower, grimmer and messier. The real tragedy has someone once said – I forget who – is that the world ends with a series of whimpers not a bang.

Another critique would be that if we are going to reduce emissions, it’s only going to happen with lots of  the big bad technology that people like me are generally deeply suspicious of:  Hello, nuclear power Hello. By energy, carbon capture and storage, Hello Space mirrors. Hello sulphur cannons and unprecedented international collaboration around some schemes like contraction and convergence.

Critiquing those critiques

So to these people, I would say firstly “you might be right. But even if those things happen, even if all those magical technologies and magic into existence, well number one takes ages for them to replace what we already have. So you need a plan to get rid of the incumbency. Good luck with that.”

And number two is it would address the broader problems related to climate change and the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially methane, around the collapse of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, population growth and our spiritual crises.

The only way that we have a snowball’s chance in hell, and again, I don’t think we do, of dealing with all those is very diverse, persistent civil society action.

Another critique

The next critique would be, “that’s fine for you and your little gang. Out of the six of you, all of you have been to an elite University, two of you have PhDs. One of you has a Master’s another is doing her master’s. And you have only one breeder among you. “

And I would say, “That’s absolutely true. But I never said that Climate Emergency Manchester was a model for how other groups should behave in terms of composition. And what we are trying to do with the Active Citizenship Toolkit is make it easier for other individuals and groups to assess the skills that they need, and the relationships that they need, what they have right now, what the gaps are, and how to close those gaps.

“We are not a vanguard, we do not pretend to be a vanguard. We are a small part of a local ecosystem. We can, we hope, be, at best an inspiration. We’re an example. And also one that speaks truth about power, not to power. The powerful know exactly pretty much what they’re doing: we’re speaking truth about power.”

So what does all this mean? Here and now? What do you do?

So, what if you are convinced that I’m right about the way the science has been attacked, I’m right about the way the international process is hopelessly bogged down and that I’m right about the inadequacies of the state responses, the corporate responses and the civil society responses.

What if I’m right about all of that? Well, that doesn’t give me or you permission to give up, to quit, to retreat into various forms of escapism, which is, of course, what our lords and masters would much prefer.

It doesn’t give us that permission. We have responsibility for the climate crisis in proportion, to not only to our individual carbon footprints – many aspects of which are beyond our direct control -but in proportion the level of privilege we have around education, habitus and cultural capital, social capital, time, access to resources and the de jure, if not always de facto. ability to use those rights.

That’s awkward because it means that people like me have a great deal more responsibility than some other people. That doesn’t mean I get to play “White Saviour.” It doesn’t mean I get to centre myself in debates and struggles. It does mean that I have to work persistently, consistently, iteratively intelligently or else my responsibility and my culpability, which is already huge, continues to rise.

So right here, right now, today what do you do in a crisis? Well, anyone who’s received, you know, astronaut training will say, “if you’ve got 10 seconds, you spend six of them making a plan.” So right here, right now today, it’s a question of drawing up a list of

what things you think you and a group of determined, like-minded people could achieve locally in the near future.

And it won’t be much because we live in tangled in systems with enormous embedded inertia. The institutions, as distinct from the organizations are obviously very powerful – they would not still be institutions, by definition, if they were not.

But nonetheless – what can you achieve? Do an audit? What skills knowledge relationships would you need to achieve that goal? What do you have? What are you lacking, where can  find it?

Now these goals don’t spring from just the ether, or from inside your head. The important thing is to make a goal, even if it’s a rough and ready one and for it to be developed, refined, changed in conversation without the people, who obviously will only be involved, if to go resonates with them.

All this sounds like a hell of a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? It’s easier to sign a petition or to go on a demonstration, or even get arrested to show that you care.

But those things we’ve tried, and we’ve tried for 30 years. Those might help mobilise in the short-term, but what we need are movements: dense as in extremely well connected networks of individuals and groups who understand what is at stake and understand that they are in conflict with other networks, other organisations, institutions, habits, vested interests in society.

And this is quite literally the fight of not just our lives, but that of future generations of human beings, and all the other species that we “share” this planet with.

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