Book Review: “The politics of global atmospheric change” (1995)

Book Review: Rowlands, I. (1995) The politics of global atmospheric change Manchester: Manchester University Press

rowlandsbookThis is one for the geeks only.  If you’re interested in the vicious fights in the 1980s an early 1990s about whether and how “we” would do something about ozone depletion and carbon dioxide build-up, then grab with both ands;  It’s well-written, with a useful format that looks – at both ozone and climate change-  at the Science, Interests, Equity and Catalysts (people and organisations that make stuff happen – or stop it happening). (1)

While it is far too specialised and “out of date” for the general reader, there are lots of useful snippets that help you understand the world.  My favourite is the fact that while scientists got the theory of ozone depletion caused by CFCs, there was an “unnecessary” delay in collecting the evidence.

Indeed, what made it even more unexpected was that the US satellites that had been gathering data over the Antarctic since 1979 had not detected any significant change in ozone levels. The reason being, tit was discerned later, was that the satellites’s computers had been programmed to discard any data that were outside an anticipated range. When the computers were reprogrammed, with this condition removed, they revealed the same pattern of spring-time depletion that had been discovered by the British ground-based stations. As John Gribbin (2) notes:

“The point is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s atmospheric scientists were increasingly confident that they understood, more or less, what was going on in the atmosphere. Both the chemistry and the dynamics of air movements were being analysed in more detail than ever before, and a coherent picture was emerging. But nowhere in that coherent picture was there even a hint that a dramatic change like the development of a huge hole in the ozone layer could occur.”

Rowlands (1995) Page 55

So, we are so sure of our theories that we misidentify signal as noise on occasion.  #hairlessape #epicfail.

Rowlands also quotes a New Scientist  journo on the subject of (science) policy entrepreneurs

“It could be argued that, if Bob Watson had been hit by a bus in 1980, we would not now have a treaty to save the ozone layer…. Watson did not discover the hole in the ozone layer, calculate how CFCs reach the stratosphere, or write the models that predict the damage. What he did do, however, was to bring the scientists who did that work together to reach a consensus on what was happening.  He then helped to translate what they said into a language that politicians could not obfuscate or ignore.  The result was the ozone treaty.”

Debora MacKenzie, How to use science and influence people New Scientist, 122 29 April 1989, page 69

That’s not Watson’s only service to an indifferent species. He also took over the reins of the IPCC from Bert Bolin in 1997. George W Bush got rid of him as soon as he could.


(1) There’s a super useful chronology of the politics of both ozone layer depletion and of climate change (the two issues overlap in profound ways)

(2) Gribbin, J. (1988) The Hole in the Sky: Man’s Threat to the Ozone Layer (London, Corgi Books, p. 95)

Reading on the Stepper: Coal, mentors, denial etc

Meditation and the Art of Writing. Yep. Should do that. I need my jedi mind tricks

The Great Climate Change Denial Industry by Robert M Thorson

Those Koch boys getting their money’s worth;

Leiserowitz proved this with an interesting turnaround regarding the public’s first thoughts about climate change after being prompted. In 2007, only 7 percent of respondents reported thinking about the “naysayer” position, which either denies or minimizes climate change, or dubs it a left-wing conspiracy. By 2010, this first thought had risen to 26 percent to become the nation’s most potent image of the subject, more important than melting ice, broiling soil or stranded polar bears.

Why the sharp turnaround between 2007 and 2010? Many causes. Economic collapse caused by greed. A decline in media coverage on climate change, down to about 0.1 percent of total news. Unusual weather. Political polarization. And most important, the strengthening of a climate denial industry.

How to find a Mentor

Typical youthful insanity is sending 3000-word emails at 2 a.m. It’s getting embarrassingly drunk at an event because you’re nervous. It’s hiding a mistake you made because you’re scared. It’s quitting because you’ve fallen behind or don’t feel encouraged. It’s arguing with feedback and thinking you know better, thinking that you’re special. Those weak emotions are luxurious. If you want to indulge them, then you’ve got no right to a busy person’s time.

Cultural politics of climate change: constructing and contesting low -carbon subjects Academic study, ongoing. Interesting.

How the “War on Coal” went global by Erica Martinson


As the projects lag, the blue-chip investment firms that used to provide financial backing for the proposed West Coast terminals have largely given way to smaller firms with a “penchant for high-risk” investments, said Clark Williams-Derry, a research and communications director for the Sightline Institute, which opposes boosting coal exports. “It’s really a shift from investment to speculation,” he said.

The Wikipedia article about the Wegman Report. Intimidation and flakking. I may have to read Michael Mann’s book about the Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars…

The decision that came outa Lima.

Gonna have to turn this into Frank and Ern toons (with my cartoonist buddy)

Australian #climate wrecking is a bi-partisan, long-term thing. Or “Abbott is not unique”

Here’s what the excellent books by Guy Pearse and Clive Hamilton about the Australian government’s climate policy under John Howard miss(1); during the premiership of Paul Keating, much loved for his views on Aboriginal reconciliation, Labor was also a “blocker” on climate change, both domestically and internationally.

The reason is pretty simple. It’s four letters. C.O.A.L. It was a big Australian export back in the day, and it’s a much bigger one now. (2)

So, I will be writing much more (40,000 words? More?) on this. For now, two little snippets, separated by twenty years.

This from August 1994. The author is Jeremy Leggett (3).

… the foreign minister warned that Australia might refuse to discuss greenhouse-gas reduction commitments at all. The Cabinet had actually discussed the option of not accepting commitments on climate change, he admitted. The government had only ever put forward its target as an interim planning measure.

And, 20 years and 5 months later, at the Lima Climate Conference …

Lima: Trade Minister Andrew Robb has told  business leaders at climate change negotiations in Lima that Canberra may not sign up to a new global deal if major trade competitors are not pulling their weight,  stating Australia will not “get it in the neck”…. Robb told the meeting with business officials  – which included representatives of BHP Billiton and the Business Council of Australia  – Australia would make a particular effort to ensure trade competitors “are as ambitious as we will be.”
“If we are not convinced they (trade competitors) are doing what they should, it will influence whether we sign up or not. Outcomes must be comparable…we are not going to get it in the neck and increase our costs for nothing,” he said. [The Age]

Liberal, Labor, 1994, 2014. Plus ςa change…

(1) It would be unfair to say  “miss altogether.” They make very little of it, preferring to stick the boot into the Liberals. It’s an understandable aim, but we shouldn’t lose sight of just how short-sighted governments of any hue have been.
(2) Though as Pearse, Hamilton, and many others have pointed out – favouring mineral extraction every time has consequences for tourism, agriculture, health, manufacturing etc.  For a recent (August 2014) example, see this Reserve Bank of Australia discussion paper, The Effectof the Mining Boom on the Australian Economy.

“This paper estimates the effects of the mining boom in Australia, using a large-scale structural macro-econometric model, AUS -M. We estimate that the mining boom boosted real per capita household disposable income by 13 per cent by 2013.
The boom has contributed to a large appreciation of the Australian dollar that has weighed on other industries exposed to trade, such as manufacturing and agriculture.
However, because manufacturing benefits from higher demand for
inputs to mining, the deindustrialisation that sometimes accompanies resource booms– the so-called ‘Dutch disease’ has not been strong.

(3) Leggett, J. (2001) The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era New York: Routledge, p. 165.

Stepping up 14 December 2014: innovation, coal, the AGGG

Gonna see if insta-commenting helps me retain factoids post-reading-on-the-stepper…

Finished off “Emerging challenges for science, technology and innovation policy research: a reflexive overview” (Research Policy 38,: 571-582. Brain stretching stuff – this, among others, was gold –

“For example, Weick (1995) recounts a story told by the Hungarian Nobel Laureate, Albert Szent-Gyorti, about a small Hungarian detachment that, after becoming lost in the snow in the Swiss Alps, managed to survive and to return to the main camp using and putting their faith (and lives), without realising it, in the wrong map (in this case, a map of the Pyrenees). The story suggests that when we are lost, any old map will do and good outcomes can come even from bad or wrong maps because they do at least allow us to begin to act, generating outcomes in a particular social context and making sense of those outcomes.”

Weick, 1995 isn’t in the references. Might be a typo for Weick, K. (1999) Theory construction as disciplined reflexivity: tradeoffs in the 90s Academy of Management Reviewe, 24, 797-806

Nope, it’s not, and after a quick google the whole story (!) thickens considerably. See here and here.

So I am clearly going to have to read: Andrew Gelman and Thomas Basbøll (2014) “When Do Stories Work? Evidence and Illustration in the Social Sciences” Sociological Methods and Research Vol 43 (5) p 547-570.

There is some great advice about academic writing on Basboll’s site.

Then there was “The UNFCCC and Beyond: Transnational Climate Change Governance” – Matthew Paterson (author of many many things, including “Global Warming and Global Politics” from 1996.  There are lots of other climate governance “experiments” at different scales and in different sectors. But is our children learning?

Then Tim Loh, journo for Bloomberg, doing a very interesting piece on coal magnate Robert Murray – “A Provocateur Sees Profits in Coal’s Long, Slow, Death.” Good stuff on how he’s spotted regulation coming, and knows how to profit from it.

Finally, an excellent paper called “Early science policy interaction in climate change: lessons from the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases” [paywalled] by Shardul Agrawala, whose work I have blogged about before. The AGGG was a short-lived group of scientists that came out of the crucial Villach conference in October 1985. Agrawala interviewed the scientists in the de jure (official) group and some in the shadow/“de facto” group of scientists. The AGGG seems to have been crucial in getting the June 1988 Toronto conference going. Agrawala’s account of the science developments in the 70s and 80s is crystal clear, and his “lessons learned” is also exemplary.

Why advertisers make us look at animals

We miss animals. We don’t hang around with them so much any more (1). George Monbiot has written with his customary brilliant synthesis of fact and theory about the costs of this.

So, on the stepper at the gym this morning, halfway through an excellent article called “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence and the Study of Politics”, I looked up and caught three adverts on Granada TV (0823-ish).

The first had an animated koala telling people that a brand of toilet paper was something special

The next had some guy with a cold being given an anti-congestant by a big red bull that burst through the living room wall.

The final one was for various pieces of tech that help people feel good and connected. The first was a big curved TV – and what was that TV showing? A tiger lying down in some snow.

So, we miss animals. And advertisers seem to think (presumably with some market research to back this up) (2) that this will get us buyin’.

The three adverts fall into two categories. The first category is “animals are part of God’s plan to help us live the lives we do now” (where “God” might be an old white guy with a beard, or capitalist technoscience. It doesn’t matter). The koala clearly can’t bear the idea of us not having tidy anuses. The bull thinks the idea of a bad cold isnot funny.

The second category is that mournful “look at what we have left behind (last chance to see)”. (And perhaps for some a vague thought of “By watching this documentary we are expressing our solidarity with the natural world. Aren’t those dark people in Africa – those poachers- just awful? Why can’t they live in harmony with Nature like we here in Europe do.”) (3)

What is to be done? This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for kids having unstructured play in natural settings (which, btw, is distinct from a litter-pick or two) and wring my hands about nature-deficit disorder. This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for media literacy classes, so everyone can become a decoding advertisements ninja. This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for a ban on advertising on TV at kids, like they have in Sweden.

But you know what? It’s too late. We’re like the psychotic monkey in the Harry Harlow experiment. Deprived of crucial mothering, its own child had to be removed because it just didn’t know what to do.

Except there’s no-one to remove anyone to anywhere. So it goes.


  1. Which makes the occasional getting-eaten-by-a-shark so newsworthy perhaps. We have come to see (and be) ourselves at the top of a food pyramid, rather than part of a web.

  2. As I recall, Fast Food Nation has stuff about how psychologists discovered that kids dream of animals A LOT until the age of six. And so cereals get marketed with ‘baby’ (big head to body ratio, big eyes) animals. Welcome to the free market.

  3.  I shouldn’t have to add the disclaimer, but this is the Internet – I do not advocate this position. I am adamantly opposed to it.

To (re-) read

Barbara Ehrenreich Blood Rites [Who did I lend my bloody copy to? I’d like it back, thankew]

Donna Haraway on Simians, Cyborgs and Women and all her other stuff (she’s a freaking genius)

John Berger Why Look at Animals (short excellent essay which I’ve nodded to in the title)

George Monbiot Feral Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding

Book Review: Bert Bolin’s “A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change”

Bolin, B. (2007) A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change: The Role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 277 pages

Cover TemplateClimate scientists, despite what you read thanks to the well-funded denialist lobby, are cautious souls.  Probably none has been more reluctant to succumb to the apocalyptic language that now seems accurate that the Swedish climatologist Bert Bolin (1925-2007).   Bolin was present at the discovery.  From the late 1950s onwards he was involved in figuring out what impact throwing huge amounts of previously buried carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would have.   He was there in leading roles at the key meetings in the late 70s through to the mid-80s (especially Villach 1985). When a  safe pair of hands was needed for the role of chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1988-), he was the logical choice.

Part one – the first four chapters-  quickly covers the “early history of the climate change issue” up to the 1980s.

Part two – the next seven chapters – covers the period from 1988 to 1997, from the first global alarms through to the Kyoto Protocol’s negotiation.   This is the period he was IPCC chair, and he gives good detail on how the IPCC’s assessment reports were  created, and how the IPCC interacted with the preparations for the Rio “Earth Summit” and beyond.  He also covers the shameful attacks on scientists like Ben Santer by the highly motivated (and fossil-fuel funded) “libertarians” of the George Marshall Institute etc.

His book is modest to the point of self-effacement, and chock full of fascinating (and for my PhD v. useful) anecdotes about the gory detail of those attacks and the fair-minded responses that the IPCC gave, to limited effect.  There are, also, as with any historical book on climate change, moments where you gasp and weep at how much we knew, and wanted to do, but then DIDN’T do.  The Angela Merkel cameos (she led the Berlin meeting in 1995) are a good example of this.

There are a couple of typos (e.g. the chairman of the Global Climate Coalition is given as both Shlaes and Schlaes) and points where a fact checker with OCD might have been useful (e.g. the George Marshall Institute was not “recently formed” by the 1990s- it was set up in 1984 to shill for Ronald Reagan’s absurd “Strategic Defence Initiative” – “Star Wars” to you and me). Overall though, if you want to know about how we got into this godawful mess – how the science has been attacked from day one, the constant low-level harassment of scientists (with occasional flare-ups) – then I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Also worth reading on this

The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart

The Heat is On and Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan

The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett

Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth about issues from tobacco smoke to global warming by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway

Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism by Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Cracking over the papers: on academia and the fear of missing out.

Human, all too human: I fell into the simple trap of attending things that Looked Interesting because they were on campus, I was on campus, they were free, I was free.

And so I have sat through hours of stuff where academics dressed up pretty straight-forward/simple ideas and observations in all the rhetoric and citations (Bourdieu this, Foucault that, Butler here, Derrida there).

I sat in rows of fellow people being turned into ego-fodder while a format that was designed when books were super expensive and rare was used in a  time when youtube could/should have Changed Everything; when if you want to deliver a chunk of “idea” you don’t have to gather a bunch of humans in the same physical space and then yack at them, and then let some of them yack back.

But habits and cultures have inertia.  The organisers win by delivering what is expected. The visiting lecturer/presenter gets their 20 mins/hour in the sun.  And the rows of folks in the audience (not “participants” – that’s something else) get to schmooze briefly in the breaks, but check their email/think about articles to write etc during the long longueurs.

Habits and cultures have inertia, and innovation comes with costs.  Risks of failure, guest lecturers not getting the attention they “deserve”, previously passive people pushing back against having to think and interact for their free lunches.

Everybody knows that the system is “sub-optimal”.  Some know that another word is possible.  But they don’t have the juice, the brains, the spine to make that world happen.
So we continue to crack quietly while papers that could have been circulated/youtubed/whatevered are delivered.

Meanwhile, my wife has a very simple and powerful algorithm

  • Is this DIRECTLY related to your PhD.?
  • Can you be very confident – based on who is there and who is organising it – that this will be useful and interesting?

If you can’t answer a firm “yes”  to one of those questions, DON’T GO.

Yes, this means that you will miss some good stuff.  But it also means you don’t have to sit through hours of drivel.

Words, ideas, videos