The European Venue for Green Ideas

A Climate of Uncertainty

By Dick Pels

Green politics appears to have landed in a strange paradox. On the one hand, ‘green’ appears to have become everyone’s friend. On the other, it often involves a ritual invocation of impending doom. Too often we hear about our ‘vulnerable’ and ‘finite’ planet, which will soon be destroyed by human predation, exhaustion and pollution. About our ecological footprint, which vastly overreaches the regenerative capacity of Ecosystem Earth, or about the two degrees warming threshold, which we cannot cross without generating catastrophic and fatal effects.

To call such evident truths into doubt has become disgraceful if not obscene, especially since the global success of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and the IPCC’s most recent climate report (2007). The truth according to Gore is that we risk the survival of our civilization and the habitability of our planet, which turns the all-out combat against climate change into a compelling moral purpose if not a spiritual duty. Global warming, to Gore, provides a moral certainty comparable to that mustered by Lincoln when fighting slavery or Roosevelt when fighting fascism.  Denying climate change is ‘equally retarded as denying the Holocaust, or asserting that AIDS is curable by red beets’ , the British environmental writer George Monbiot agrees.

In recent years, this consensus has been disturbed by the young guild of climate sceptics. Initially, their views were so far removed from mainstream scientific conviction that they were not taken seriously. Until in november 2009 ‘Climategate’ erupted, two years after Al Gore and the IPCC had shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Leaked emails from prominent British and American climate scientists appeared to suggest that they had intentionally glossed over unwelcome data, which could possibly weaken the urgency of the environmentalist message. In addition, mistakes were discovered in the report of the IPCC’s Working Group 2 itself: subtle exaggerations which once again tended to place certain consequences of climate change in a more dramatic light than was strictly and factually legitimate.


Talk of Crisis and Catastrophe

The sceptics accused the IPCC of exuding too much scientific certainty, countering Gore’s and the IPCC’s mantra that ‘the science was settled’. Talk of crisis and catastrophe, in their view, was not supported by the facts, which leftwing climate scientists and environmental activists manipulated to their own advantage. Climate change is of all times and can be effectively addressed by existing market incentives and smart technological inventions. Alarmism is a form of political scaremongering by a leftwing doomesday lobby which is driven by moralism and the wish to promote large-scale interventions in the freedom of enterprise and the freedom of consumption.

Populist politicians and media were predictably most vocal in this regard. The Channel Four documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle (2007) directly mirrored Al Gore’s film in its propagandistic panache about the ‘true cause’ of climate change: the activity of the sun. The German Bild-Zeitung published a cover article entitled ‘Die CO2-Lüge’. A random supporter of the Tea Party proclaimed: ‘Climate change is a big swindle. The weather is too complicated, even for our computers. The models of scientists are too complex and biased. My father left Oklahoma because of the Dust Bowl, way before massive gasoline use and heavy SUV’s’ (NRC Handelsblad 27.7.11).


A New Way to Discuss Climate Change

My wager is that the climate debate can be liberated from this impasse and acquire new energy if we dare admit a greater measure of uncertainty. While climate policy is often set in the tone of a categorical imperative, it is equally true that the majority of climate sceptics do not live up to their name. Their scepsis is highly selective and opportunistic: they act like militant atheists who merely want to discredit established environmental theology. If the IPCC may be reproached for having insufficiently followed the ethic of organised scepticism, many self-styled sceptics fasten with relish upon its limited mistakes in order to proclaim its total failure.

In a recent book entitled Am Ende der Gewissheiten (The End of Certainties)(2011), the German green scientist Frank Uekötter likewise worries about the ‘mysterious self-certainty’ of the environmental movement, which offers too many answers and poses too few questions. He favours a change of climate in the climate debate, which needs a higher level of self-criticism and reflexivity. The green monoculture tends to close itself off from criticism and to indulge in alarmism, empty pathos and an eternal tone of anxious concern. The green movement must once again learn to listen instead of broadcasting its sacred truths. An ‘environmental politics of uncertainty’ views the future as an open construction, but one that must be approached cautiously, in an improvising and flexible attitude, and in permanent dialogue with those who think differently.


A Broad Range of Differences

One way to escape from the mirrored certainties of ‘left’ environmentalism and ‘right’ climate scepticism is to draw a broader range of differences. On both sides of the controversy we encounter radical and more moderate repertoires, which not only differ with regard to the nature of climate change itself but also in the intensity with which they call upon fixed truths and firm empirical evidence. In this way, we may draw an intellectual map of the climate debate which distinguishes between four intellectual positions, two moderate and two extremist, which may be plotted along the curve of a horseshoe: 1. alarmists; 2. established climate science and mainstream green politics; 3. moderate sceptics; and 4. populist climate change deniers.

The upper half of the horseshoe is a zone of moderation and relative uncertainty, while the bottom half represents a zone of radical certainty. It is equally important not to amalgamate positions 1 and 2 as it is to remain aware of significant differences between positions 3 and 4. While climate alarmism (1) and populist denial (4) appear totally and irreparably opposed, they approach one another (les extrèmes se touchent) in their militant self-confidence and their tendency to disqualify and even ‘demonize’ opponents. More accurately, the horseshoe model unfolds a continuum on which all kinds of mixed and intermediate positions may be plotted. Al Gore, as well as activist ngo’s such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and World Wildlife Fund may e.g. be situated somewhere between 2 and 1. The most interesting interaction currently takes place between the moderate repertoires 2 and 3: this exchange may hence be our best chance to revitalize green political thought and practice.

Travelling along the curve of the horseshoe from bottom left to bottom right, there is a growing conviction that there is no such thing as a threatening climate change, and that man (i.e. the industrial emission of CO2) cannot be considered the main culprit and is hence exempt from responsibility. Climate pessimism and belief in the limits to growth increasingly recedes before optimism with regard to the problem-solving capacity of market capitalism, economic growth and technological ingenuity. Rejection of the greenhouse theory tends to kill all ambitions to revolutionise the existing system of production or to moralise about people’s acquisitive mentality and wasteful lifestyles. Accordingly, there is a decreasing enthousiasm for government regulation of markets or for attempts to seduce (if not constrain) citizens to adapt their consumer patterns.

Moving Along the Curve

The horseshoe also enables us to follow positional shifts along its curve. One example is offered by the Danish sceptic Bjørn Lomborg, who, in his most recent book Smart Solutions (2010), appears to have shifted some way in the direction of mainstream climate science and the IPCC. But he reaffirms his earlier conclusion that an exclusive fixation on cutting carbon through the Koyto process has not been effective, and that urgent global issues such as hiv/aids, poverty, malnutrition and illness must be attacked directly, instead of taking the roundabout and much more expensive climate policy route. Another eye-catching move in the opposite direction was recently made by the environmental journalist Mark Lynas. After having published alarmist books such as High Tide (2004) and Six Degrees (2007), he adopts a more optimistic and technocratic position in his recent book The God Species (2011). Global warming, in Lynas’ reformed opinion, has nothing to do with overconsumption, norms and values, ideology or capitalism, but can be successfully tackled within the existing economic system. What we need is ‘a technofix in the entire economy’.

The alarmist position (1) is sufficiently represented by threatening book titles such as The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock; Heat by George Monbiot or Fred Pearce’s The Last Generation, which all date from 2006. Since his article ‘Scream Crash Boom’ from 2005, former Greenpeace director Paul Gilding also scores high on the meter for crisis alarm. His recent book The Great Disruption (2011) claims that we find ourselves in a desperate situation since climate crisis has become unavoidable. Hence we must mobilize as if for war. For this coming ‘one degree war’ (because two degrees warming will be catastrophic) we had best draw lessons from the English and American war mobilisation during 1939-40.

Dropping the war speak

Such ‘war speak’ is no isolated occurrence in the green movement. In its quest for ecological self-sufficiency and local resilience, the Transition Towns movement, for example, feels inspired by the austerity, the striving for autarky and the sense of community of the British war years. Caroline Lucas, British MP and Green Party leader, recently co-authored a pamphlet (with the NEF) entitled The New How Front, which calls upon the British ‘war spirit’ in the face of ‘what is probably the most acute threat Britain has ever encountered’. The director of the renowned German Postdam Institute for Climate Change Research (PIK) agrees that climate protection is only feasible ‘along the lines of a war economy’. Even former EU Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas went so far as to state (in 2007) that we needed nothing less than a ‘world war’ against climate change.


Differentiating Scepticism

Examples such as these illustrate that mainstream climate science and green politics are easily seduced by alarmist sentiments and bellicose rhetoric. However, it remains essential not to confuse  positions 1 and 2. Equally essential is to remain aware of the differences between militant climate populism (4) and the moderate skepticism of authors such as Lomborg, Lynas, Ganteför, Vahrenholt and Crok (3). None of the latter denies that the earth is warming up, that it is to a large extent caused by the human emission of greenhouse gases, and that non-intervention will have serious consequences for the future of the human species. They refuse to believe, however, that climate change signifies the end of civilization or worse, the total destruction of our planet.

Hence there exists a broad consensus among positions 2 and 3 about the fact of global warming itself (which is currently around 0,8 degrees) and the warming effect of CO2. But there is much less certainty about how exactly greenhouse gases impact on the climate, and how to weigh their influence against that of natural processes such as variations in solar activity or volcano eruptions. Uncertainties arise in projections of the speed and volume of the warming and of critical tipping points which may trigger irreversible climate effects. Both alarmists and populists deny that such uncertainties exist. They either take the worst case scenario as scientifically proven and therefore inevitable, or suggest that there is ‘no problem’ and that intervention is unnecessary. Both ground their views with great confidence in scientific and/or experiential evidence, and accuse the opponent of manipulation, exaggeration and ‘pseudoscience’.


Embracing Uncertainty

In between both extremes, we encounter positions which admit a greater level of uncertainty. Risk estimates and the drawing of critical boundaries (such as the two degree limit) are never merely scientific but always also value-laden, political operations which require broader margins of interpretation and debate. In a post-positivist, constructivist conception of truth and rationality, empirical facts do no longer establish the ‘rock bottom of knowledge’. Facts are invariably set in normative frames and theoretical preconceptions. This implies that facts and values are less easily separable than a natural science-oriented institution such as the IPCC is inclined to think. And that, epistemologically speaking, it is far too easy to accuse moderate (other than populist) climate sceptics of practising ‘fact free politics’.


Less ‘Shock and Awe’

This greater factual uncertainty opens up the climate debate to moral deliberation. Indeed, the green project is to a large extent a moral project, which is concerned with improving the quality of life on earth. Its central terms of debate: sustainability, carrying capacity, climate sensitivity, the ecological footprint, overshoot etc. are simultaneously and indissolubly empirical-theoretical and ethical categories. The concept of the ‘limit’ (as in ‘limits to growth’) is precisely one of those core political-philosophical concepts which demonstrate a continuity or even confusion between facts and values, and which as a result remain ‘essentially contested’. In this respect, ecological limits are both external and internal: they are not only set by objective biophysical facts but also by a moral attitude of self-limitation and moderation.

This ethical space must be conquered both upon those who wish to let the (alarming) facts of climate change speak for themselves, and upon those who reject all moralising about lifestyle change because they favour adaptation and/or a technological fix. Our challenge is to reshape green politics under conditions of chronic uncertainty with regard to the ‘climate sensitivity’ of the earth. A less ‘shock-and-awe’-inducing approach, which leaves more space for moral consideration and political dispute, might create wider support for preventive climate policy than an alarmist ‘politics of fear’. The science is not settled, and even if it were so, we are still obliged to compete for different conceptions of the good.