Climate Science and the Ideology of Human Pollution

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The UN Copenhagen climate talks are in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN's role in all future climate change negotiations.

As Louis Althusser explained in "Spontaneous Philosophy...", when ‘think tanks' and similar ‘interdisciplinary' institutions made up of experts from disparate fields are brought together, what inevitably results is that they cohere around the ideas which they all readily share and recognize. This is always their common ideology. And this ideology can be nothing but the ruling class ideology, i.e. in this case bourgeois ideology.

As we all know, a body was set up in 1988 by the UN to officiate over the concern of harmful human induced climate change, called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It all began around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, which perhaps is no accident (but we will leave aside for the moment the need the dominant media/press seems to have to promote fear: mass extinctions by catastrophes and epidemics, such as avian/swine flu, asteroid impact, and so on, and how this ending of one big fear in the possibility of nuclear war, seems to have generated a need to fill this gap with new fears).

It may surprise some, but the IPCC is not, as it is commonly understood, a scientific body. It says this itself: to quote from its website:

The IPCC was established to provide the decision-makers and others interested in climate change with an objective source of information about climate change. The IPCC does not conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters. Its role is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change, its observed and projected impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

So, this is a group of people, some of whom are scientists but from different disciplines, who gather research, synthesize it, and comment on it for policy reasons. In doing this it admits that literature other than scientific is to be used for its assessments, e.g. "socio-economic" literature.

What, we might ask, is "socio-economic" literature? - It is simply any literature focused on social and/or economic themes. In other words, it is almost any literature that it "likes." A recent 2009 mini-scandal occurred in the UK over revelations that a climate warming scientist, Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, was intent on bending the peer review process against a skeptical paper he appeared to simply not like.

The IPCC panel collects research about a single topic: human induced climate change (HICC). Given that the panel is designed to look into only this topic, its conclusions might tend to be already written into its premises: that harmful HICC is a reality.

This is, let us say, not the best basis from the point of view of scientific objectivity. Perhaps a symptom of this "objectivity problem" is noticeable in how the IPCC repeats (on its website) that it is "objective," without showing why or how, even though by its own admission it does not do scientific work. Obviously, it cannot claim objectivity by or through its own criteria, yet it does so.

What kind of objectivity is not scientific? Well, the IPCC does all this work, by its own admission, for "decision-makers." These people are those known more usually (often pejoratively) as politicians. The latter term is repeatedly avoided in the IPCC literature - one might even say it is repressed.

Why this shyness? You might think that the IPCC sought to mask who the actual master of its discourse is. What might the politician perceive that perhaps the oil company boss might not? Perhaps the broad interests of its class, rather than, or more than, for instance, the narrowness of a national corporation, which may only seek its own profit.

For the IPCC the world is natural but it is implied that we human beings and our products, industry, are not. So it can put forward the notion that there is natural climate change and our unnatural human induced climate change, we interfere in the planet like aliens.

This ideology of human pollution, irrespective of its truth value for the moment (for now we are concerned chiefly with the ideologies in the debate), can sometimes resemble the religious doctrine of original sin, where we do not deserve such a beautiful world and must pay a price for our very existence from the moment we are born (penance). It was previously brought to its peak in Nazi ideology, where certain kinds of people are considered as unproductive, as indeed a human form of pollution.

Those who especially promote harmful climate change often in the press seem evangelical and castigate their opponents as "deniers" in this way. A Manichaean good versus evil conspiracy is conjured up and always frames the entire debate.

Who are the leading figures that promote the idea of harmful climate warming? Are they independent, struggling heroes left out in the wilderness, as you might imagine from press accounts, sacked from any job they might have by the big moneyed interests, like oil, that they attack? This is not quite the case.

One obvious example is James Hansen. He heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and is currently (as I write anyway) an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He also serves as Al Gore's science advisor.

Hansen was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996 and received the $250,000 Heinz Environment Award for his research on global warming in 2001 (Hansen supported 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, the Heinz Foundation was run by Kerry's wife); in 2001 he was listed as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the Time 100 2006 list. In 2007 he was awarded the Dan David Prize; on April 5, 2008, he received the PNC Bank Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service for his outstanding achievements in science.

Note that PNC bank is a top-ten Small Business Administration (SBA) lender in the US. The SBA is a US government agency that assists and protects the interests of small businesses. As I write this SBA currently holds a portfolio of roughly 219,000 loans worth more than $45 billion, making it the largest single financial backer of businesses in the United States. The main reason why SBA loans are so profitable to banks is that it has created an infrastructure whereby the portions of 7(a) loans guaranteed by the agency can be transformed into triple "A" rated government bonds, so big banks have an interest in this.

Hansen currently (June 2008) lobbies the US administration for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, coupled with the creation of a huge grid of low-loss electric power lines buried underground and spread across the US so as to give wind and solar power a chance of competing, presumably as small businesses that will want bank funding. Ironically perhaps, he has blamed special interests for the public confusion about the global warming threat, saying that the problem is not political will, but the influence of lobbyists. Yet he is also a special interest lobby.

While such figures as Hansen give the impression that they are from a beleaguered small bunch fighting giant oil companies, we can see they themselves are not separate from big business, indeed these figures often work for tightly controlled government connected departments. It has to be said, too, that institutions like the Shell Foundation (set up by the Shell Group oil company) have also supported the idea of a distributed electrical network through grants as a part of its aim to provide "financially sustainable solutions" to global energy. (Its financial contribution is, relative to the profits of the banks, small though; nevertheless it is not impossible for the oil lobby to have an interest in global warming alarmism).

What does all this mean, then? The latter move appears to be a part of a general promotion of the notion of "natural capitalism," also the title of a book by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. They propose redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste, shifting from the sale of goods (like light bulbs) to the provision of services, such as illumination, and reinvesting in the "natural capital" that is the basis of future prosperity: a kind of clean cyber-society."

Quite apart from how this now seems faintly ridiculous given the global catastrophe of the current great capitalist economic recession and the folly of relying on a services-based economic model, a lot of which seems to have been exacerbated by the exact same love of virtuality; and quite apart from confusing a raw material resource and use value with capital (the latter which is the result of the exploitation of human labor), what seems to be happening in this ideology is a general attempt to win for capitalism an image of it championing localized heroic small businesses with green credentials while discrediting "red" ("eastern," "foreign") "developing world" tendencies as monolithic and dirty, along with physical labor itself and the entire global working class.

If it was indeed the case that a move to electrical energy was a solution this would be fine. But electricity here is not an energy source, it is a carrier, so this move simply means that the source becomes more hidden and can remain - oil. Existing oil resources, through certain measures, can be eked out rather than abandoned, and subjected to technological ruses that put the control of the resources into more distanced electronic hands where the pollution can be hidden (such as hydrogen fuel cells for hybrid or electric cars made by fossil fuel burning processes for both the fuel cells and the electricity, but which in the cars is clean) and sited in poorer regions of the globe where the effects cannot be challenged or publicized so easily; also, note, supply can more easily be switched off.

Now, we already accept that pollution is a problem. It is a fact. The idea of global warming is an extension of this. Peculiarly though, it is one that has led to renewed calls for greater investment in an already highly unpopular and without any doubt polluting energy: nuclear power.

This nuclear option is promoted in the context of a strange consensus that those who will suffer most from global warming will be the so-called developing world, or the poorer nations, and the poor, who are the least well equipped to cope with catastrophes, even though such events as hurricane Katrina (sometimes put down to global warming and the stated greater frequency of such storms) have badly affected many people in the "rich US" (although of course disproportionately the poor).

It is perhaps revealing (of ideology) how there is such confidence in a globally disastrous weather phenomenon that somehow selects only localities where the poor live to act. The problem is obviously being put at the foot of the poor, and the global south and the east, and "our" bourgeoisie, the wonderful philanthropic and clever ruling classes of the nice safe west, are going to kindly save them.

But only on certain terms of contract of course.

Their political goal is currently to try to regulate the supply of all raw materials and resources for power generation, such as traditional fossil fuels, in the same way as nuclear power is globally regulated (or almost regulated) today. Which means, in the end, that usually developing nations are under increasing pressure: political, economic and finally, when the chips are down, military pressure, to let a consortium of rich nations decide what and how power/energy resources are to be obtained, developed, implemented, circulated and consumed. This maneuver means that raw materials and resources of course become more of a globally marketable commodity, as with so-called carbon trading, and so more tied in with global capitalist exchange conditions.

Any rich nation that produces and can utilize a lot of weapons (like the US and UK), but does not have huge domestic resources of oil/gas/coal at its disposal but still has great demand for energy, has an interest in this kind of regulation and will want to take steps to enforce it further. To aid this, the advanced capitalist nation's media/press image is of "dirty" polluting poorer nations which are morally bad, counterpoised against the rich nations which are (now) clean, hi-tech and because of this morally good.

At the same time, our "advanced world" reliance on oil is a long term problem that will need to be solved irrespective of global warming, given that it is a finite natural resource, and this fact is being downplayed (peak oil).

The induced fear of global warming thus arrives on the scene at a suspiciously convenient time. When the rich nations find themselves confronted by the awkward fact that dwindling natural supplies of raw materials for power generation are not located in territory under their direct jurisdiction, and when developing nations are beginning to become large competitors in the global capitalist market for energy sources and have grown huge traditional fossil based industrial capacity.

Thus the image of dirtiness is set to become a future excuse for the use of good force against evil nations that can be depicted as risking our fragile planet, such as have already formed part of the many different as hoc justifications given for the recent Iraq war.

Superficially the fear of HICC leads to many criticisms of capitalism: that its free market policies have attacked biodiversity, destroyed natural ecosystems, and polluted the environment, risking the planet, all in pursuit of relatively short term profits. Yes, this is exactly what happens: capitalism is rapacious, and this is the case whether or not global warming is true or false. Capitalism has, though, also provided the means by which the world can be fed and watered easily, with massive production; indeed one of its perennial problems has been overproduction, a fact which those who argue population control still fail to grasp.

Given this, concern about global warming can mask the economic problems. It can be a political maneuver that sets more burdens upon the shoulders of the working class, especially in developing nations, and produces fear and timidity (acting against protest) in the hearts of those in the developed world. It also lends the appearance of progressiveness to the ruling class, the owners of the industries whose practices cause the pollution in the first place.

The above are ideological forces that come into the debate. Let us now look briefly at the science.

Climatology is the science of longer term weather. Change in climate is normal, a given fact of science that has been proved beyond doubt by looking at the long term geological evidence. The case being made, however, is that humanly induced, or anthropogenic, carbon dioxide emissions, chiefly from the burning of fossil fuels (like oil and coal, but also methane from livestock) add to a possibly runaway "greenhouse effect" where the carbon in the atmosphere acts as a re-reflecting agent on the sunlight, something like a big greenhouse window.

This effect, it must be stated, happens normally and is actually essential to life on Earth. Without this heating the Earth's average temperature would be only about -73° C (-100° F) and even the oceans would be frozen. On the other hand, a runaway greenhouse effect, like that occurring on the planet Venus, results in surface temperatures as high as 500° C (932° F), a condition that exists in spite of the fact that the high reflectivity of Venus' clouds means the planet actually absorbs less solar radiation than the Earth.

Climatology is chiefly concerned with atmosphere, and regards other forces like volcanism as external "forcing," yet they are intrinsic properties of the Earth.

A very important factor is that the Earth's climate is time-dependent. Variation in time of solar radiation, the orbits of the other planets and their moons, the stars, cosmic rays, the oceans, the atmosphere, the land and its movements, plate tectonics and volcanism, life (we know that life has an effect on climate, because life is a contributing part of the ecosystem; e.g. storage of carbon in "carbon sinks" for instance) and their interaction, all affect the climate of our planet, continuously. Each year the Earth's climate goes through changes much bigger than any alterations linked to the differences of one year from another, and also greater than the differences between different climatic epochs, except those of the ice ages. Both the ocean and the atmosphere have the characteristics of dynamic chaotic systems: they obey the established dynamic and thermodynamic laws of physics, but in a nonlinear fashion that permits apparently unlimited variability.

So there are patterns that can be described in climatic change, but the element of chaos tends to obscure these regularities in any short-term view, and this short term is by any common human measure actually quite long. 300,000 year is the blink of an eye in geological terms. Given this, one mistake the climate warming scientists continually make is to refer to "imbalance" in climate taking place without explaining or justifying scientifically what the balance is, or might be, given time.

For, if the Earth can be said to have a normal long term climate at all, it would actually appear to be a warmer one than it is now. We are currently in a colder interglacial period. On the other hand, our planet is quite dialectical, in the sense that it usually fluctuates between the two opposed poles of temperature, any balance between these therefore also oscillates.

Thus, the long term weather of the Earth is an extremely complex, fractal system with a lot of capacity for change, but put basically, this is to hotter and colder environmental conditions, yet life is tenacious and has been around for a very long time, actually billions of years. All change can be considered harmful, and all stasis harmful, it depends.

Periodic climatic change is a scientifically established fact. However, the language of even the most respected scientific sources on this subject often reverts to trying to prove just this, that climate change happens (e.g. IPCC itself as a name), which is superfluous, rather than the more recalcitrant thesis that harmful human induced climate change is happening.

The case for harmfulness is of course harder to prove; it does not just necessitate understanding carbon emitting as a fact, but what harmful means, and depends on the timescale applied - the future is a long time. Whatever we do, or do not do, might be regarded as dangerous depending on where the line in time is drawn. Relying, as sometimes occurs, on data over the last 150 years in this context is disingenuous.

For example, in the long term, it even seems likely that the changing climate, even to its extremes, has (perhaps ironically) helped the evolution of our species, as does the changing seasons, over the last three billion years, including extinction events and bottlenecks.

The real and more difficult question is whether human industry, which is so extremely recent in terms of the planet's long history, pollutes so much that it is going to have an injurious effect on the ecosystem of our planet, one that is unprecedented (as if from outside) and not capable of being counterbalanced by other existing forces without our conscious intervention, in the short space of time which means that it may be taken as an immediate danger.

Predicting climate change is made difficult because of the complexity and the amount of different physical processes involved. In this sense it is sometimes understood as a stochastic process, similar to the stock market, involving sequences of random variables. Can this harmful global warming currently be proved within a reasonable definition of proof? The scientific consensus is that human induced warming is taking place and is dangerous. We must accept this consensus. But this consensus is only consensus, and is not itself based in an indisputable scientific theory of climate that can predict entirely accurately. Such a complete theory does not currently exist. And remember, consensus has often been proved wrong in the history of science, by individual rebels against the think tanks. Nevertheless, not all sciences are exact sciences, and this does not mean they are unscientific.

With all the above provisos, the research so far points to dangers for our species and life as such on Earth that seem to be prevalent, and we should err on the side of caution and lessen the impact of our "footprint." The human species has probably, in prehistoric times, been here before through ignorance combined (peculiarly) with economic success - through hunting without sustaining the hunted species - and we seem destined to repeat this same kind of mistake.

Action involves switching to sustainable resources for energy.

Unfortunately this is not something that capitalism is good at. The trouble is that the incentives produced in capitalist competition are usually to increase the profitability and reach of the existing oil industry and its derivatives by disguising oil use in different technical forms. And, for various oft cited reasons, it can be regarded as almost impossible in capitalist economics to enforce solutions outside this, not least because its ideology willfully regards planning the economy as a bad thing and the "free market" as the good, and in climate terms the free market will always be too short term.

As we have seen above, even the "green" + "cyber" capitalism that is being promoted as the savior from environmental doom inevitably presents false options and pseudo solutions based in vested interests, as do the various summits concerned with carbon trading. These almost always represent a serious failure to take into account the bigger joined-up economic picture that genuine sustainability requires.

It will seem a glib answer to conclude that socialism represents our only hope here, but, safe sustainable solutions to the energy crisis already exist in the form of technological uses of wood, water, wind, wave and solar power, the difficulty is social implementation and the political will.

Photo by Takver, courtesy Flicker, cc by 2.0

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