Goodbye to 2008

Posted by TonyN on 31/12/2008 at 9:32 pm New Statesman, The Climate Add comments
Dec 312008

As the final freezing hours of 2008 fade into history, this would seem to be a good time to look back at the year and also at the short history of Harmless Sky, which is now just over a year old.The first rather tentative pages went live on 17th December 2007.It would be tedious to rehearse all that has happened, so I am going to focus on just one topic which encapsulates much of what this blog is about and highlights issues that are now at the heart of the climate debate.At the beginning of the year I came across two articles published by the New Statesman, which had generated a huge number of comments on their website. The first was by Dr David Whitehouse, an astrophysicist who was the BBC’s Science Correspondent from 1988-98 and then science editor of BBC News Online from 1998-2006. During this period he must have been ideally placed to see how concern about global warming grew from being the preoccupation of a few scientists and environmental activists into a new scientific and moral orthodoxy. His article was provocatively entitled, ‘Has Global Warming Stopped?’

After describing the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, Dr Whitehouse pointed out that although CO2 levels have continued to rise during this century, temperatures have failed to do so. He then explored a weakness in the hypothesis, demonstrating that, although it can explain the warming of the last decades of the twentieth century very well, it cannot explain why temperatures have levelled off, and then fallen, without a commensurate decline in CO2 levels. Dr Whitehouse did not in any way suggest that the hypothesis was bad science, but merely probed the way in which it relates to recent temperature trends that are quite unexpected. He also suggested that this flaw in the hypothesis might indicate that there are natural influences on global temperature of which we are still unaware, and questions whether our understanding of the climate is adequate to draw firm conclusions about what is happening.

So we are led to the conclusion that either the hypothesis of carbon dioxide induced global warming holds but its effects are being modified in what seems to be an improbable though not impossible way, or, and this really is heresy according to some, the working hypothesis does not stand the test of data.

It is the use of the term heresy that puts this thoughtful, cautious and scrupulously argued article in context. The Environment Columnist of the New Statesman is Mark Lynas, one of the high priests of global warming alarmism, and that venerable publication’s editorial policy on climate change is set accordingly.

A month later, a furious and somewhat hysterical response from Mark Lynas appeared. It started like this:

On 19 December the New Statesman website published an article which, judging by the 633 comments (and counting) received so far, must go down in history as possibly the most controversial ever. Not surprising really – it covered one of the most talked-about issues of our time: climate change. Penned by science writer David Whitehouse, it was guaranteed to get a big response: the article claimed that global warming has ‘stopped’.

But of course Dr Whitehouse’s article does no such thing, as the title makes clear. He merely points out that temperatures have ceased to rise in the way in which climate scientist have predicted they would, and that this is good reason for further scrutiny of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. But, as Dr Whitehouse obviously suspected when he wrote his article, posing questions about the validity of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis really is heresy so far as people like Mark Lynas are concerned. Readers may like to draw their own conclusions from Mr Lynas’ apparent need to enclose the word stopped in quotation marks, as though he hardly dares utter the term.

In an attempt to debunk a claim that Dr Whitehouse had not in fact made, Mark Lynas had only one argument to offer, and this was based on a graph showing global temperatures overlaid by what looks rather like a bird’s nest. On closer inspection this turns out to be a vast number of eight year trend lines one for each year of the temperature record and they create the impression that global temperatures have continued to rise during this century; which is, of course, rubbish. None of the institutions that publish annual global temperatures have produced such data.

Dr Whitehouse was scrupulous about citing well-accepted data on CO2 and temperature levels to support his arguments. It would seem that in order to find a way to attack these criticisms of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, Mark Lynas has been unable to find anything more convincing than a graph that relies for its effect on a highly contentious statistical construction. So we have a conflict between a scientist’s arguments based on empirical data on the one hand, and on the other hand the assertions of a layman based on a statistical confection. Although Mark Lynas is obviously very interested in climate science, his degree is in politics and history.

Perhaps Mr Lynas was aware that his response might fall rather flat, and this may explain why he ends his article with a gratuitous insult aimed at  Dr Whitehouse, suggesting that he  may have been intentionally trying to mislead the New Statesman’s readers. Why a respected journalist and scientist should wish to do such a thing is not made clear, but mindless vilification of opponents seems to be an essential weapon in the environmental activist’s armory.

Blog comments in response to these two articles continued to accumulate on the New Statesman’s website until they numbered over 3000, and I estimated that only about one in ten supported Mark Lynas views. The vast majority of contributors seemed to recognise the merit of sound scientific arguments from a professional, and deprecate the pseudo-scientific babbling of an avowed activist whose first claim to fame involved   throwing a custard pie in Bjørn Lomborg’s face  because he disagreed with his views.

Later, when the New Statesman closed the comments on the blogs associated with these articles, I offered to host a continuation of the discussion at Harmless Sky. Since then over three thousand more comments have been added, though the discussion has long since drifted away from the subject matter of the two articles that started it all. This massive thread is something of an outpost of Harmless Sky as I never intended that my blog should be concerned with detailed discussion of scientific controversies, but it makes an interesting contribution to the site nonetheless. The ratio of sceptics to warmers has stayed much the same.

Harmless Sky was launched just after the Bali climate change conference at which the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, burst into tears when he thought that he might not get his way, and massive media hype proclaimed that a rather vague road map – to be implemented at another conference at Pozna? a year later – was a giant first step towards saving the planet. Those were the days when global warming was riding high in the political firmament, and everyone was being encouraged to believe that climate change is the worst peril that the world faces. In other words, this was before the oil price spike of last summer that, we were told, signalled the end of the fossil fuel era, and the banking crisis of the autumn that heralded a descent in to recession, or even depression.

A year after the Bali conference I am writing this in the aftermath of the Pozna? conference which was supposed to carry forward the Bali road map. This gathering of 11,000 diplomats, politicians and environmental activists has failed to bring these aspirations any closer to reality, and the reaction of the media has been very different to the blanket coverage of the Bali conference. Instead of the squeals of horror that these abortive negotiations might have been expected this to generate in the media, little attention has been paid to the failure of Pozna?. Attitudes to global warming have changed, and changed very radically, in the space of a year.

The Whitehouse and Lynas articles seem to me to be a microcosm of the climate debate; a contest in which activists expect to rule supreme by attempting to suppress or discredit even the mildest questioning of their beliefs, and are prepared to use any means at their disposal in order to do so. To some extent they still seem to have the attention of politicians and the media, but opinion polls suggest that the public are by no means convinced. And in democracies, where pubic opinion leads, politicians and the media eventually have to follow.

As we move forward into 2009, another cold year has made Dr Whithouse’s question even more relevant, and Mark Lynas’ graph looks even less convincing. No amount of trend lines can disguise what is happening. Statistical gymnastics are unlikely to convince the public that humans are now in control of the climate, and until the advocates of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis are prepared to consider seriously the kind of questions posed by Dr Whithouse, rather than responding with accusations of bad faith, their case will only be likely to convince those who are predisposed to agree with them.

Much has changed during the last year, and I have no intention of joining the current fashion for prediction by trying to anticipate what will happen next, other than to suggest that next year will probably yield surprises, in the same way that last year did. I will welcome this as it is never knowing what might happen that makes blogging fun.

Very many thanks to all those who have contributed to Harmless Sky during the first year and helped to make it all seem worthwhile for the proprietor at least.

And a very happy New Year to everyone.

68 Responses to “Goodbye to 2008”

  1. Tony: I doubt if many leading politicians really think this type of investment will create wealth. Also I’m beginning to think that a lot of them may now suspect that this “climate change” thing may, after all, be nonsense. But the credibility capital built into it and the extensive reputations at stake amongst the established classes, senior media figures etc. make the upheaval that would be the result of backtracking impossible to contemplate. So they’re forced to appear to be delivering what they promised and therefore are announcing trivial “green” measures (re recycling etc.) and dramatic “targets” (largely applicable after they are likely to have lost power) and hope to buy time on the real issue by announcing these so-called “investments”, expecting to be able to to keep immediate action to a minimum. In the meantime, they hope that something – e.g. China, India etc. refusing to play ball – will crop up and get them off the hook.

    Re Susan Solomon, I assume you saw this.

  2. Further to my #45, here’s another from The Times: Scepticism grows over the viability of green projects. Lord Turner, chairman of the Government’s Committee on Climate Change (in his doubtless abundant time off from also chairing the Financial Services Authority)

    is to investigate the collapse of funding for renewable energy projects in Britain after the recent exit of a string of companies, including BP and Shell … [following] mounting scepticism over the Government’s plans for a huge expansion of wind and tidal power.

    He commented

    We have to make sure that the present climate does not set back our plans.”

    I wonder which climate he had in mind: economic or atmospheric?

  3. I think that it might need rather more than Lord Turner’s blandishments to persuade investors to back expensive and unproven alternative energy schemes at a time of global recession and falling fossil fuel prices. What’s the betting that, when the government has to admit that they are going to miss their Co2 reduction targets, this is blamed on ‘the worldwide banking crisis’?

    But wait a moment, we now have a brand new Climate Change Bill that makes the targets legally binding. This could get really interesting I think, because the bill makes provision for buying offsets instead of meeting the targets. In view of what that most scrupulously apolitical think tank, The Institute for Fiscal Studies, said this week about the UK facing decades of high taxation just to pay off current debt, what effect is this likely to have on public opinion?

  4. Tony: and don’t forget there’s the escalating cost of the Olympics as well. That’s something else we cannot defer.

  5. Nonetheless, I see that, speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos today, Gordon Brown said

    the world’s leading countries must not use the global economic crisis to “renege” on commitments on global poverty and climate change

    Hmm …

  6. As the prime minister is wont to boast that Britain is the first country in the world to have a climate bill I would expect him to say no less. But how long before people begin to ask why we are the only country that has enshrined reducing Co2 emissions in legislation? This relates to #53 above.

    What worries me is that his plea at Davos seems to give equal priority to the very real, life-threatening, problems of ‘global povery’ with the notional, and politically very convenient, threat of AGW. This is not a position that will bear scrutiny.

  7. It’s clear that we’re about to live through some interesting times, politically, economically and climatically (if that’s a real word.) As you’ve both mentioned, for the government and for us as taxpayers there’s a huge bill to be paid – payouts to the banks, the car companies, the Olympics and to pay for what has been called the “decarbonisation” of the economy.

    At some point, survival instincts have to kick in, though, surely. With ordinary people first, and the politicians lagging, maybe. The thing that generally gets people motivated to strike, protest, demonstrate and speak out en masse, as I think we’ve seen recently with the refinery workers, is a perceived threat to their livelihood and economic well-being, rather than a contentious phantom menace such as climate change. I suspect that this will become more apparent as the months pass.

    As for the green jobs promised by the PM, one of the few practical (if uninspiring) ideas I’ve heard of is putting people to work installing loft insulation. Glass wool can be made from recycled bottles, and putting it in is easy enough. And a well-insulated house is nice to have during the sort of Arctic weather that will be heading our way at the start of February next week.

    But when all the lofts and cavity walls are insulated, what will there be left to do in the lean, green economy? Maybe not much, except for the market gardeners…

  8. “As I have asked before, can anyone explain in economic terms how the kind of schemes envisaged will generate wealth, rather than just increase debt in order to create employment.”

    How would you define ‘wealth’? In fact I could ask how do you define ‘money’ itself? At one time the value money was linked to a precious metal usually gold. Now, it just what is termed a ‘fiat’ currency. Something to be printed at will to keep the wheels of the economy turning as best governments can manage.

    ‘Creating employment’ is probably the key indicator in any western economy. Which it could be argued is a pretty good way of managing any economy. Our wealth is a mixture of our natural environment and the products of human labor. There are good arguments in favour of utilising the latter to protect the former during an economic recession.

  9. Peter

    Economists have argued about the definition of wealth ever since the days of Adam Smith, and I certainly wouldn’t attempt to define it here, and nor would I try to define ‘money’, or for that matter, ‘value’. The sense in which I used the term was a positive balance between assets and liabilities. And yes, I do realise that there are very real problems relating to how assets are valued.

    In western economies, full employment has certainly been a useful indicator of economic health, but only up to a point. In the UK we have had low unemployment ever since the mid 1990s, but entirely because of a consumer boom fuelled by cheap credit. It is becoming clearer to us all with every passing day that this has not made our nation wealthy. In the old planned economies of the Eastern Block, full employment was one thing that governments were able to deliver, but no one would suggest that their economies made these countries wealthy.

    Roosevelt ‘s Tennessee Valley Project undoubtedly created employment, but it also paved the way for massive economic development in a previously deprived area by improving the infrastructure. That in turn created wealth. I find the suggestion of massive investment in a ‘low carbon recovery from recession’ far more problematic. Here’s an example:

    About ten days ago I came across a page describing the tribulations of a company that described itself as the largest solar power generators in the world; they were pulling out of Australia, which they described as the sunniest country in the world. Their reasons for doing so are that the Australian Government will not provide them with subsidies and introduce regulations that would ensure demand for their product. (I can’t find this reference again and if anyone can provide a link I will be grateful)

    Had the Australian government done what this company had wanted, this would have undoubtedly created wealth, but only in the pockets of the companies shareholders, not in national economic terms. Competitiveness would suffer as a result of increasing the cost of energy, and taxation, or increased debt and then taxation, would be the only means of providing the subsidies. If creating demand by diktat, and then subsidising a company to satisfy it, was a fast track to national economic prosperity, then what country would be poor?

    In the UK and the US, greedy bankers are being blamed for our present terrifying level of indebtedness. I think that the more rapacious alternative energy companies might be able to teach them a thing or two about how to work the system. This story reminded me of the sale of monopolies in the days of Charles ll.

    Massive investment in green technology funded by even more borrowing is likely to look very attractive to politicians who are preoccupied with saving their skins by minimising unemployment during a recession, but what are the long term economic consequences likely to be?

  10. Tony, I think the company you’re referring to might be Norway’s Umoe Solar; here‘s an article in the New Brunswick Business Journal describing this decision.

  11. Alex:

    Thanks, your link enabled me to track this down, althoug I don’t think that it is exactly the story that I saw first.

    AUSTRALIA is forfeiting billions of dollars in investment and thousands of jobs through its lack of support for solar energy, according to European companies that have shunned the sunburnt country.

    An Age investigation has found that potential investors courted by federal and state governments have rejected Australia, the world’s sunniest continent, citing a lack of business incentives such as tax breaks and the nation’s unwillingness to regulate in favour of renewable energy.

    The Age

  12. TonyN: at #46 you asked if anyone could “explain in economic terms how the kind of schemes envisaged will generate wealth, rather than just increase debt in order to create employment”. Well, although the last paragraph of this typically acerbic article by Ruth Lea may not answer your question in general terms, it shows how such schemes are unlikely to help the UK economy:

    And as the economy staggers through its worst downturn for nearly 30 years, much will be made of how the development of “green-collar jobs” will renew our manufacturing base and lead the economy to new fields of prosperity. This is, sadly, all too likely to be wishful thinking as we generally do not have the technology or the manufacturing capacity required for such a “green revolution”. Nuclear technology (which in the green lexicon does not even count as “green”) is dominated by the French; wind technology, biomass, solar technology is dominated by the Germans and Carbon Capture and Storage (probably 10-15 years away commercially) is also dominated by the Germans. Electric vehicle and hydrogen fuel cell technologies are dominated by the US, Germany and Japan – and are in any case estimated to be around 20-30 years away commercially. We really must not fantasise. And in the meantime the increasing burdens of “green” electricity costs will drive our energy intensive industries, including steel and chemicals, offshore.

  13. TonyN,

    You make a valid point saying that inefficient labor isn’t as wealth creating as efficient labor.

    The labor theory of values does not imply that labor in itself creates value, no matter what the end product of that labor may be and no matter how inefficient it may be. You can’t argue that the more labor is embodied in a product the more value that product possesses. It is only ‘socially necessary’ labor that is value determining. In saying that the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labor worked up or crystal­lized in it, we mean the quantity of labor necessary for its production in a given state of society, under certain social average conditions of produc­tion, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labor employed.

    I should confess that I have lifted this last paragraph straight from Marx! If the economic downturn hits us all as hard as some are suggesting, and if you are interested in this this kind of economic philosophy there might be time enough in the next few years to delve a little deeper into all this.

  14. Robin and Peter:

    Ruth Lea, as always, has something interesting to say, and in the paragraph that Robin quotes at #62 she is suggesting that, where the new green industries are concerned, we are a week behind the fair. But I think that the problem with a ‘low carbon recovery from recession’ is far more complex than this. Demand for green products depends mainly on political intervention in the free market, and that is dangerous, as we have seen from the failure of the old planned economies of the Eastern Block and also in China until they discovered capitalism.

    It’s nice to have a thread where both Marx and Tolstoy (#5) can be quoted in context. The problem with the chunk that Peter chose is the great man’s reliance on the term ‘socially necessary labour’ to make his point. That seems to come very close to describing the thinking that lies behind a ‘the low carbon recovery from recession’ and, unsurprisingly, Marx has nothing to say about the creation of wealth.

    So I am still posing my original question, but with added urgency. Surely when we are on the brink of massive investment to create green collar jobs, someone must have thought about this. If we all spend the next decade searching the pages of Das Capital for clues to a ‘neo-marxist recovery from recession’, then the future could certainly be interesting, but I think I’ll stick closer to Keynes, for all the risks that that implies. And so far as I can see, the ‘low carbon recovery from recession’ fails his tests for justifying borrowing to revive a failing economy.

  15. Tony: I think you’ll find that there is no good answer to your question. Political intervention in the market rarely, if ever, works. I am unaware of anything that might change that today.

    PS: I don’t think it’s very helpful for Ruth Lea (whom I generally admire) to refer to AGW as “a huge con’. My own view is here.

  16. Robin

    I fear that you are right that there is no good answer, but I do not think that that makes the question any less important.

    Like you, I found the way in which Ruth Lea expressed her scepticism aout AGW unfortunate. I’ve seen far from her elsewhere. I did try to start a discussion on the article blog but, like the UK altenatives industry, I was a week behind the fair.

  17. Robin,

    Political intervention in the market rarely, if ever, works.

    So, what about the recovery from the Great Depression of the thirties? It’s debatable whether it was the Keynsian economics of the ‘New Deal’ or the onset of WW2 and the general need to maximise production for the war effort, which had the greater influence. But, either way, you’d have to say it was ‘political intervention’.

    Attitudes to the free market weren’t much different in the thirties to what they are now. In other words it was generally promoted as a ‘good thing’. The private sector was efficient and desirable.

    But, when the chips were down all that kind of thinking was cast aside. It would have been interesting to see how the free marketeers would have conducted the war if they’d been left in charge.

    Would the defence of London, or the invasion of Normandy have been put up for tender to the lowest bidder?


    “Marx has nothing to say about the creation of wealth.” You must be kidding! He’s capable of getting anyone to sleep with page after page of discussion on the subject :-)

    Now, if you’d said he had lots to say about capitalism but nothing much on what might replace it, then I wouldn’t have argued.

  18. Peter,

    Political intervention in the market rarely, if ever, works.

    Well, except in the Soviet Union, the greater part of WW2 expenditure (munitions, equipment etc.) was put up for tender. But that’s not the point: I don’t somehow think that the “green” investment TonyN is talking about will be spent on government factories! No, the point of this discussion is quite different: facing an urgent need to get the economy moving, is the Government wise to be deciding in which industries it should be investing taxpayers’ money? Experience says not.

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