Are we armed only with peer-reviewed science? - John Archer

John Archer argues that a radical climate movement must have a radical critique beyond a reliance on science. Article originally published in the summer of 2007.

This year the Camp for Climate Action apparently came ‘armed only with peer reviewed science’. In a society that hasn’t quite given up the idea that it should be governed rationally, this approach wins respect. However, whilst crucial to know the best available science, this shouldn’t eclipse the need for political discussion. The neglect of the latter was palpable at the camp: Were we a lobby group with faith in the oligarchy, or did we want to work towards dissolving the social and economic structures that caused this mess? The former came through strongest. The manner in which environmentalists are currently utilizing science may have unforeseen consequences. Of most importance, it leaves us vulnerable to cooption with agendas antithetical to the emancipatory ideals outlined in the original aims of the camp. An unlikely source of useful criticism on this matter comes from the writers of Spiked, vociferous critics of all things green. If you can stomach the numerous ideological divergences and their ‘interesting’ epistemological orientations, their demands to put the politics back into environmental issues are worth listening to.

Environmentalists have become used to discursive marginality, having spent most of their time simply trying to persuade others to take anthropogenic global warming (AGW) seriously. Suddenly hoards of unlikely people want to be seen to be green.

For some, it’s too little, too late, and too insincere. However, most campaigners see cause for celebration. Even ‘radical’ environmentalism no longer causes controversy. Campaigning has become like pushing at an opening door.

Whilst not discounting crucial advances in awareness, there are grounds for caution. Few people are asking important questions about the social implications of our responses to climate change. Where does the door being pushed lead to? What kind of world are we trying to save? Whose world? If politics is continually overshadowed by science rather than complemented by it, and all eyes are kept fixed upon carbon emissions, terrible things may happen in the background.

Many consider the situation urgent enough to warrant almost any measures. At the Camp for Climate Action this year, authoritarian and market-orientated proposals dominated at a forum for progressive, libertarian solutions. Intentionally or not, the affair became a dramatic single-issue mass lobby for punitive state intervention. Friends of the earth with D-locks. Campaigners concerns may not so much be accepted as co-opted, providing leverage for agendas antithetical to those outlined in the original aims of the camp.

Millenarian fantasies aside, capitalism and the state apparatus supporting it could survive climate change, though in uglier forms. Barring a clean energy revolution, this would entail cutting energy consumption by ensuring only a minority carry on consuming: Deepening inequality coupled with exclusion through green taxation; the poor being forced to sell energy quotas to survive; prevention of infrastructure development in nations hit hardest by climate-change under the ruse of sustainability, whilst rich nations aided by stolen majority world resources - including land to grow bio-fuels and organic vegetables - create fortress-like border controls.

‘Cut the carbon by any means necessary’ campaigners seem asleep to this, but what should be a nightmare is a fast approaching reality.

Those associated with Spiked-Online usually appear in environmentalist discussions as vilified ‘denialists’, neoliberal stooges, or Trotskyite entryists. Beyond such hasty assumptions, there is more to Spiked than mischievous contrariness and a social-constructivist approach to science. They’re one of few voices in the climate-change debate that touch upon issues outlined above. Their contribution provides a much-needed demand for reflection upon the political strategies of radical environmentalism, or the dangers inherent to the lack of them.

Reclaiming the human subject

Many core contributors to Spiked and associated organisations were once active Revolutionary Communist Party members. The RCP formed in the mid 70’s as an expelled faction of The International Socialists. Contrary to orthodox socialist peers, they perceived the working class as too indoctrinated to harbour revolutionary potential, and so instead concentrated on creating an intellectually combative and upwardly mobile vanguard. Following electoral failure, focus shifted towards elite intellectual realms of the media and academia. The principle vehicle for this was their publication, Living Marxism, later re-branded LM. Bankrupted by a libel case, LM became Spiked-Online. Many ex-RCP now write for leading newspapers, make prime-time documentaries, commentate on national television and radio, or organize high-profile conferences.

By 1996 the RCP had been disbanded, conventional political avenues declared redundant, and distinctions between left and right irrelevant. The key struggle was instead between those seeking to extend human freedoms and progressive enlightenment values, and those undermining them. With an unacknowledged anti-progress alliance spanning the political spectrum, the dominant spirit of the age is pessimistic about human potential to overcome adversity, obsessed with manipulative exaggeration of risks, fearful of material, technological and social progress, and inclined towards infantilising society through increased regulation, surveillance and state interference.

Even capitalism, driver of growth, innovation and desire for self-improvement, has succumbed to the era’s guilt-ridden miserabilism, and is fighting rearguard actions to present itself as ‘caring’. Spiked is unwavering in advocating unfettered free market capitalism, with virtually all state intervention negative.

Nonetheless, branding them neoliberal stooges is neglectful of their complexity. A parallel is their assumption that all environmentalists must be misanthropic, authoritarian, anti-development, and enthralled to a proto-religious vision of Gaia. Prominent in their coverage of the camp, Spiked often resort to predictable slurs, stereotyping, and building straw men out of superficial environmentalist arguments. A little attention deficit disorder aside perhaps, it’s easy to see what provokes such hostility.

If the majority of relevant scientists are correct, climate-change demands recognition of limits to certain human activities. ‘Externalities’ may not remain external, while ‘nature’ might not be eternally bent to humankinds will; a spanner-in-the-works for believers in permanent material progress. Passionate humanists also react aggressively to suggestions of another stage in the inevitable erosion of anthropocentricism.

Crisis? What Crisis?

In light of these difficulties, Spiked’s first approach to the environmental crisis is to question its existence. They are usually armed only with standard sociological critiques of scientific knowledge. Examples include funding bodies encouraging certain results, scientists holding culturally formed opinions that sway research, ‘science’ being methodologically incoherent, the paradox of permanent discovery and absolute certainty, and social factors delaying paradigm shifts. Josie Appleton, for example, states that the veracity of scientific discoveries depends almost entirely upon the “circumstances in which such science is produced”. Echoing others at Spiked, she claims that AGW theories “[owe] more to the anxious zeitgeist than to climate realities.”

I hope they’re right, and not simply missing the limitations of critiques that are, as post-modernist science critic Bruno Latour asserts, “useless against objects of some solidity”. You cannot deconstruct the reflective properties of carbon dioxide molecules. Likewise, past unreliability in the field should not entail automatic rejection of all climate modelling.

Nonetheless, there is not always the certainty many environmentalists claim. As Brendan O’Neill observes of the climate camp, “If, possibly, perhaps, risk…all these caveats are expunged by the protestors who declare simplistically ‘the science says we have 10 years to SAVE THE WORLD!’ Simultaneously, it is rarely considered necessary to know which scientists and which studies are being cited. Scientists say so. End of discussion.

The scientific consensus is often invoked to stamp out moral and political rather than scientific debates, providing a screen for environmentalist moral and political evaluations. There are two pertinent examples. Firstly, the individual moralization of carbon emissions; whilst necessary to a degree, it does as Spiked commentator Sadhavi Sharma points out, ‘completely let off the hook our social and economic systems’. An almost inevitable result of holding the camp at Heathrow, it made us seem, as Nathalie Rothschild recognised, “more like new puritans than radicals”. Secondly, descriptions of human activity in terms of a rapacious virus display misanthropy by locating the cause of environmental destruction in ‘greed’ central to the human condition, rather than as results of the social and economic systems people live within.

Both implicitly encourage increased state coercion to ensure the malevolent majority is forcefully controlled, and could easily transfer into horrific policies towards the rapidly industrializing majority world.

Spiked also aren’t averse to muddling science for political purposes. Whilst most climate-scientists are portrayed as unreliable cultural pessimists, paradoxically we should trust ‘science’ for solutions to climate-change. Humanity can invent its way out of any corner. This is exemplified in their stance toward GM technology; of course GM crops are safe, they’ll feed the world, even if half the cultivatable land becomes desert. Just don’t mention agribusinesses breathing down the necks of genetic researchers!

‘Armed’ with science?

A lead banner at the camp read, ‘we are armed only with peer reviewed science’. Armed indeed, scientific credibility is a vital weapon for marginalized campaigners. ‘The Sciences’ provides more than a baseline for climate-change discussions, it stuns critics and provides space for political manoeuvre. ‘The science’ that marchers were carrying was a report on contraction and convergence, which is primarily a political solution to climate change, not an assessment of it.

Numerous different commentators were simultaneously claiming that ‘the science’ leaves no solution but theirs. This included Mayar Hillman’s well-received proposals for the virtual suspension of democracy.

Indeed, environmentalist appeals for regulating, controlling, and reducing, assimilate more easily with authoritarian than libertarian political systems. As George Monbiot pointed out in his seminar, ‘there has never been a riot for austerity, but that’s what we’re asking for’. Most revolutions ask for more, principally more freedom to live according to ones desires. What form a libertarian-green revolution would take is a difficult question.

Subsequently, Spiked present environmentalism and ‘the science’ as a sinister anti-politics project. Josie Appleton suggests we base approaches to climate-change, ‘not on scientific facts but political critique’. Meanwhile, Spiked editor Mick Hume pointed out that traditionally protestors go armed with political arguments. Though political discussion without reference to relevant aspects of material reality is dangerous idealism, at the camp the focus was on science, with politics comparatively untouched, effectively handing the matter to the government.

Climate Science can deceitfully blend with politics and morality, become a distraction from necessary political discussions, or perilously ignored. Efforts must be made to integrate them more appropriately.

Acceptable risks?

‘Risk’ said Ulrich Beck, ‘is the moral statement of a scientised society’. Considering the scientific consensus on climate change, the lives at stake, and lack of technological solutions available, it might appear that only the callously immoral would risk continuing the carbon economy. For Spiked however, such notions display apocalyptic obsessions symptomatic of perverse cultural attitudes towards risk, and negative appraisals of the human subject. The precautionary principle embodies a society afraid of itself and its creations. Environmentalism, according to Furedi, is the work of “fear entrepreneurs” exploiting anxieties for political gain. We should reject this emasculating tendency to view uncertain futures “through the prism of fear”, and instead reclaim the human ability to triumph against adversity.

To environmentalists however, this may seem an article of blind faith, asserting humanism as the true successor to Christianity. The need for more debate that Spiked plead for acts as a long-grass into which the climate change ball can be thrown, as it was throughout the 90’s. Furthermore, this call is easier made when residing in a position of ignorance or little personal risk.

Spiked are however right to point out that the frenzied ‘act-now or we all die tomorrow’ routine could have harmful consequences for what little democracy we have. ‘The time for debate’ it is often said, ‘is over’. Does this refer to science or politics? Again, too often the two are confused.

Common ground

Ironically, as much as Spiked lament the onset of scientific green-authoritarianism, beneath a newfound green-sheen the establishment are not taking climate change as seriously as the scientists. Far from timidly backing away from that particular notion of ‘progress’, growth remains a priority over all others, as demonstrated by the Heathrow question. Far from opting in to the culture of pessimism, risky optimism remains central.

Beyond differing assessments of AGW and interpretations of ‘progress’, Spiked may share considerable unrecognised common ground with environmentalists. Sanctimonious and misanthropic elements aside, most environmentalist campaigners are true humanists, believing in the potential for rational intervention to change the world for the better of all humanity.

Many might also agree that cultural pessimism is at work in their movement, manifest in the immediate inclination to align with existing political and economic structures in the search for a solution, rather than facing them as part of the problem and looking forward.

It needn’t be so. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and so hybrid politics can arise in times of crisis. Effort is needed to overcome the apparent contradiction between emancipatory social change, and the challenges posed by climate change. The best available science provides context, but should not distract from political tasks. Far from climate science destroying politics and debate, it can throw it wide open again by bringing to light new matters of concern, new problems coupled with new opportunities as flaws in contemporary society’s orthodoxies are laid bare.

The root causes of this crisis are not particular buildings, particular corporations, or particular politicians, but the wider social, political and economic structures within which we live, our cultural priorities, and the dominant ideologies of our time. It is a ‘battle of ideas’, and this movement needs to wade in with more courage.

i Josie Appleton: Measuring the political temperature
ii Bruno Latour: Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern, Critical Inquiry 30, 225-248. 2004
iii Brendan O’Neill: Let the puritans protest
iv Nathalie Rothschild: Heathrow Protest: Not so Happy Campers. Http://
v Josie Appleton: Measuring the political temperature
vi Mick Hume: These self righteous clowns at Heathrow. viiUlrich Beck: Risk Society: towards a new modernity. Sage, 1992
viii Frank Furedi: The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself

John Archer is based in Manchester, and writes and campaigns on a variety of issues, including the Camp for Climate Action. Amongst other things, he is interested in the relation between science and power. The issues raised by climate change leave him utterly confused.


A Meyer
Dec 29 2012 15:40

The article above says: -

"A lead banner at the camp read, ‘we are armed only with peer reviewed science’. Armed indeed, scientific credibility is a vital weapon for marginalized campaigners. ‘The Sciences’ provides more than a baseline for climate-change discussions, it stuns critics and provides space for political manoeuvre.

‘The science’ that marchers were carrying was a report on contraction and convergence [C&C] which is primarily a political solution to climate change, not an assessment of it."

This last sentence is an inaccurate description of C&C.

C&C has four sequenced 'domains' of caluculation as follows: -

[1] Contraction and Concentrations
[2] Contraction and Convergence
[3] Contraction and Conversion
[4] Damages and Growth.

The author can find a little more information about this here: -