Friday, 26 June 2009

June 2009 - Climate sceptics: Certain about Uncertainty?

First published in the Environment section of the Guardian on 25/06/09:

It seems the one thing climate change sceptics are certain of is uncertainty, in particular how uncertainty in the predictions of climate models fatally undermines their legitimacy.

So the recent revelation of the UK government's projections of global warming through to 2080 was met, predictably, with some cynicism by the deniers. While some commentators used the detailed projections about possible future UK climate scenarios to underscore why we must take strong action on climate change, the response of climate sceptics was to say that the error bars in the projections made them worthless.

Never mind that the level of uncertainty about mean temperature increase, sea level rise and seasonal rainfall was dealt with in painstaking and meticulous detail in the report. For some, the mere presence of uncertainty was reason enough to doubt. But uncertainty is not an enemy of science that must be conquered – it is the stimulus that drives science forward. As in economic forecasts, medical diagnoses, and policy making, uncertainty runs through climate science like the lettering in sticks of rock.

The good news is that scientists are particularly adept at acknowledging, identifying and modelling it. The Met Office team responsible for the climate projections managed to systematically indicate what they did know, what they didn't know and how confident they were about these judgments. If there's one group of people who have thought long and hard about uncertainty, its climate scientists. But Irene Lorenzoni and her colleagues at the University of East Anglia have shown that people frequently view uncertainty as a reason for inaction on climate change.

Such is the level of scepticism in some quarters that climate scientists are constantly required to apologise for what they don't know, rather than encouraged to communicate what they do. But uncertainty is not the same as ignorance – which is why the labelling of GM food became mandatory in 2004. The Food Standards Agency did not demand certainty before taking action, although the uncertainty surrounding the risks of genetic modification is far greater than the considered consensus of climate science.

One reason that so much attention is given to the uncertainty associated with climate models is that they form the basis of important and costly policy decisions. But the "precautionary principle" is a well-established method of policy making when uncertainty prevails, on the basis that it is better to be safe than sorry. Could it be that climate sceptics' obsession with uncertainty is simply an unwillingness to accept the consequences of the climate changing – that their lifestyles will have to change as well?

The UK climate projections are not a weather forecast for 3 July 2078. They are a set of scientifically rigorous probabilistic assessments of what the UK climate might be like in, say, 50 years time. But the writers of the report seemed to feel compelled to get their counter-arguments in early. Of course, it is absolutely essential that all uncertainties in climate models are made clear. But it's odd reading a scientific report where the caveats come before the take-home message.

There is one crucial uncertainty, however, that cannot be captured in any climate model: the extent to which action is taken to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases. The irony of the debate surrounding what we can and can't infer from climate models is that they sketch out possible, not inevitable futures. By giving us some idea of what lies ahead, they furnish us with a critical opportunity to change course. Rather than procrastinating about uncertainty – an inescapable fact of life – we should be taking the opportunity to get serious about climate change, and prove the climate models wrong.


Tuesday, 9 June 2009

June 2009 - Reclaiming the language of localism from the BNP

In European elections voted in by just over a third of the eligible UK population, held during a global recession, and in the wake of an unprecedented disintegration of the Labour party's remaining working-class vote, the far right British National Party obtained not one but two seats in the European Parliament. Dark days for British and European politics.

With a 'whites only' membership policy and a leader who once associated with Klu Klux Klan members, the BNP are true right-wing extremists. They present maniacal, paranoid stories about the 'liberal elite' that seeks to destroy the lives of 'ordinary white British people'. They talk openly about 'preserving the bloodline' of the country - yet they garnered over 100,000 votes in some constituencies. Can it really be true, as almost all political commentators have asserted, that the people who vote for the BNP are oblivious to the racism of this fascist party? Or does the language of the BNP tap into something that people genuinely believe in - the language of localism that has been neglected so comprehensively by the left that it has been hi-jacked by the far right?

On the face of it, there wouldn't seem to be much common ground between the xenophobia of the BNP and placard waving socialists. But yet trade union parties such as No2EU - Yes to Democracy ( share a superficial rhetoric with Griffin's thugs: an impassioned rejection of European political structures. Even more bizarrely, the language of Transition Towns (the hippie-ish grassroots response to climate change and peak oil) seems eerily reminiscent of the BNP's. With all the talk of 'buying British', 'shopping locally' and even local currencies, could Totnes be the next Burnley?

Scratch beneath the surface, of course, and the similarities disappear completely. The BNP despise European politics because they despise Europeans. Trade Unionists despise European politics because they share a deep affinity with fellow victims of 'race to the bottom' capitalism - the workers of Europe who are treated as all-too-expendable labour, to be hired and fired as the dynamics of the common market demand. BNP supporters buy British because they distrust multi-culturalism and the produce of foreign lands. Transition Towns supporters buy British to minimise their food miles and are warmly welcoming of cultural diversity.

But the all-encompassing embrace of economic globalisation by the political
mainstream (and in particular, the centre-left) has left a void which the far-right have gleefully filled. The ruthless drive of international capitalism has plucked workers from their communities and distributed them more efficiently. Single occupancy houses are at their highest ever rate in the UK. The language of 'alienation' that the BNP use strikes a chord because people are genuinely isolated in their 'own country'. But the threat - far from being the dark-skinned immigrant or the eastern European worker - is the socially divisive menace of globalised capitalism.

That we are surprised that progressive political parties and left-leaning environmental groups talk about British Jobs and British Produce is a scathing indictment of how successfully the far-right have hi-jacked the language of localism.

That is why it is more important than ever for the left to regain a narrative that leads not inexorably to racism and xenophobia, but to equitable and sustainable solutions to social division and resource distribution. The goal of the Transition Towns movement is to create communities that are resilient in the face of climate change and resource depletion - by encouraging and recognising diversity, not denying it as the BNP would seek to do. The No2Eu Party, anguished and frustrated at being treated like a tradeable commodity, are not angry at the foreign workers taking their jobs - they are angry at the economic system that allows it to happen.

Without a voice to stand up against the perils of economic globalisation, the far-right will shout on people's behalf. With unemployment rising, and a globalised recession to blame, isn't it time the left reclaimed the language of localism from the BNP?