Revisiting the green hype crash


It was to be ‘the last chance’ to save the earth, or at least human kind and present biodiversity. But last December the COP15 Copenhagen conference on climate change seemingly drowned in a political quagmire. No binding agreement was reached. Yet, a pussyfooted political landslide may have occurred. Environmental NGO’s should reshape their previous naïve strategy accordingly.


Photography: Michel Robles


To be sure, it was not so much the meager environmental results themselves that were disappointing. Those had been predicted, just prior to the invasion of activists, delegates and celebs to the Danish capital, bathing in luxurious non-LED Christmas lighting.


What really fell flat, was the massive Copenhagen lobby and PR hype, staged by the greens. And to a large degree their leaders themselves were to blame. After many years of clever activism, with scientific data as a deadly tool, this time they got themselves stranded by over-eager scientists, harping on a wobbly hypothesis of global, man-made climate disaster.


Certainly, the science pundits may well be right. We do know (yes: largely thanks to the global alarm) that drastic climatic and ecological changes are taking place in many regions of the world. In that sense something ‘global’ is happening, indeed.


But the climate sciences have not yet produced conclusive evidence for any of the key elements in the hypothesis. It’s neither certain that we’re dealing with one globalized cause-effect process (instead of several coinciding ones), nor that the net result will be significant warming. Let alone that we’re sure of the environmental effects or the human contribution to the observed trends.


In other words: as yet, both a coherent theoretical foundation and a lot of empirical research are lacking. Yet the environmentalist community straight away grabbed at the shaky evidence to forge a global alarmist strategy. Predictably, they failed. Politics didn’t take the bait, nor did the public. Especially not in the present (global!) state of geopolitical and economical flux.


Suddenly the green movement finds itself in a climate crisis all of its own. They’ll need a totally fresh approach. And what happened in the last hours of the Copenhagen conference may point towards such a new, more fruitful strategy.

Self-propelling “paradigm”
First, let’s take a closer look at what went wrong. Two things, basically. To begin with, too many scientists got carried away with two simultaneous observations. One was: rising concentrations of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. The second was: apparently widespread georegional climatic changes.


Urged on by politicians and smelling Nobel Prize stuff and rivers of funding, even renowned research institutions succumbed to careless speculation. Next, environmental groups lost their heads as well, rallying too eagerly to the scientists’ call to arms.


No doubt about it: (partial) melting of ice caps, glaciers and permafrost, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and regional rises in temperatures – all of those are fearsome facts. And sure, it was an great achievement that ever more researchers in the eighties began to tie such observations together under one central hypothesis.


But a scientific proposition of a global and mostly man-made climate change, due to an overdose of carbon dioxide CO2 in our atmosphere is one thing, issuing a flow of political climate warnings, as some influential institutions like NASA did, is quite another.


It made the idea snowball into a self propelling force within the scientific community. An overriding “paradigm”, in terms of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn.


A striking lack of academic self criticism ensued, in stark violation of one of the core duties of all scientific research: the principle of falsification, as formulated by Karl Popper.


According to Popper science basically is the business of doing your damn best to disprove your own initial hypothesis. Usually this is the only way to avoid collective tunnel vision. Yet, in the climate debate, a lot of research seemed to be directed precisely towards amassing evidence confirming the man-made climate change tenet.


Suddenly formerly anonymous researchers enjoyed headlines status. Large research grants were flying. Counterevidence was repeatedly waved aside, using ad hoc ‘explanations’ that had no solid foundation either.

In the end, critics were routinely ridiculed, probably even banned from the authoritative scientific literature. Thus the global warming theory was gradually turned into an inherently unfalsifiable axiom - exactly what Poppers rules were designed to prevent.


Slogans, oneliners and speculative warnings like “we fear that” or “it may well be that” took far too much precedence over sober fact reporting and critical evaluation of models and predictions.


At first the public tended to be in awe of such ‘expert’ statements. ‘Green science’ was trusted as before. But the truth is dawning: science has lost its cool about the heat.

And what about the normally levelheaded environmental NGO’s? How come they fell for it? The main cause was their own internal situation in the mid-eighties and nineties, when the climate cataclism theory stormed the scientific hit parades.


Many established NGO’s were in a midlife crisis of self justification. Having attained most of their original goals, they were looking for new battle arena’s, partly for no more noble reason than self preservation. Climate change to them was a godsent.


Also, there was a nagging sense of guilt: green groups had collectively failed to realize in time the dangers of what used to be considered harmless CO2.


But the boomerang came…. The mutual alarmist PR dance of science and green activism opened up wide avenues for ‘skeptics’ - both bona fide and less well meaning - to plug in doubts about the scientific integrity of platforms like the official International Panel on Climate Change IPCC. Climate researchers have become dollar hunting political conspirators, they claimed: the climate story is a hoax.


Foul play

Of course not all the blame rests on the greens’ side of the equation. The vested fossil interests ruthlessly exploited the docile PR of their longtime environmentalist enemies.


Fossil fuels are a zillion dollar business, involving ever bigger capital risks. Foul play has never been shunned in those circles, nor in the businesses and applied sciences directly depending on the use of fossil fuels.


Doubtful scientists and consultancies were hired to discredit the “climate lobby”, abusing mistakes and normal scientific uncertainties indiscriminately. Creating confusion is a favorite strategy to stall social change. Now, it was applied with full vigor against climate change theorists.


The fossil fuel elites played their cards well. And they wield many powers with civil servants and political establishments. Some evidence of the latter seeped through when Yvo de Boer, the Dutch chief of the UN climate bureau UNCCP, confessed to a Dutch newspaper that he had a hard time to convince civil servants in important Dutch departments that CO2 was politically relevant at all.


Undoubtedly the resistance is the same within government bodies all over the globe. But the green movement should have seen it coming. The greens forgot to check on their only true weapon, science, in their haste to hop on the climate train.

By the time COP15 was approaching, a trench war raged between scientific believers, serious critics and vulgar ‘skeptics’ lobby groups, all holding various (sometimes dark) agendas.


The louder the greens shouted “2 to 12!”, the more they lost their credibility. Even top notch science reporters no longer knew how to untangle the facts from the tactics in this war. And so the climate gospel got lost on the majority of the confused population. People really don’t know anymore Which suits the coal, natural gas and oil barons fine…


The Waterloo came in the shape of two breakdowns, just after the start of COP15. First, we got ‘Climategate’, the disclosure (malevolent or not) of hundreds of compromising e-mails exchanged by some of the leading IPCC scientists, talking of hiding inconvenient data, changing statistics and expelling colleagues with dissident views.


Whether or not scientific fraud really did occur, the very fact that these famous scientific nestors had discussed it, was enough to disqualify the data they did publish. Right or wrong, that’s the way bad publicity works…

Glacier bull
Secondly, early December, the BBC reported an embarrassing mistake in the latest IPCC general report. Based on an Indian scientist’s unfounded (and at that time not double-checked) speculation in New Scientist magazine and repeated in a WWF report, the IPCC announced that the Himalaya glaciers would be melted by 2035.


No peer reviewed scientific publication, was behind this alarming statement, and IPCC had ignored warnings about it from glaciologists. If net melting does take place at all, the correct date would probably be sometime around 2350.


Politics may or may not lurk behind this blunder. On the one hand, the statement appears in a part of the report that had the difficult aim of assessing the effects of climate change in spite of a notable lack of peer reviewed research. Therefore IPCC here had to resort to less rigorous documents.


On the other hand, scientist ‘believers’ in India have long faced heavy opposition from the country’s ruling caste. India’s rulers wanted their economy to grow, unhindered by emission caps. Alarming statements may have been used to break down such resistance.


Anyway, the guy who first voiced the absurd speculation, Syed Hasnain, has since gained the position of chief of glaciology of The Energy Resources Institute TERI, headed by Dr. Rajendra Pachauri. Correct: the same Pachauri who also fiercely chairs the IPCC.


Power shift
Came Copenhagen, enter the real politicians. Political leaders, if they are any good, are blessed with a social sixth sense. Prior to COP15, they combined generous lip service to the green climactivist tide with old fossil allegiances and a sharp eye for the defective armament of the divided scientists and their docile green followers.


Most political leaders never intended any binding agreement. The necessary incentives of scientific rigor and a compelling greenforce just weren’t there. Also, they had other fish to fry… A quick climate agreement did (and does!) not fit the emerging new geopolitical reality.


Consider the facts. Western oil industry has trouble finding exploitable reserves and is facing worrying up-front investment necessities. Russia, on the other hand, is using its natural gas reserves to finance its national rebirth through economical diversification. And China is a cleverly rising giant, feeding on coal and nuclear energy.


Moreover, both the American and the Chinese leadership are facing serious home troubles. We’re living through times of shifting world power, with fossil fuels as a key instrument. Industrial and political elites are not likely at any time to discard their main arsenal in times of fundamental turmoil, especially not when they’re not convinced they’ll need to in the end.

Obama’s landslide
And yet, a closer look at the COP15 negotiations reveals at least one sign of hope, if we may believe a document released by the Whitehouse just after the conference. It’s a a staff debriefing session about the astonishing last minute moves that resulted in the final ‘Copenhagen Accord’. blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2009/12/the_inside_story_how_obama_met.html


The release of this sensitive document was definitely a political move. But it does offer astounding insights in the crazy series of misunderstandings, combined with nimble improvisation on U.S. President Obama’s part, that resulted in a sudden new alliance of all the mayor greenhouse gas emitting nations.


At the very last moment, and right across the old South-North gap, that has long plagued the climate debate, China, the U.S., India, Brazil and South Africa have pledged to join hands against a climate nightmare.


Obama amicably forced them to. By first bowing humbly for some of China’s wishes (in itself a revolutionary political gesture for a U.S. president!) and then walking quasi innocently into China’s secretive meeting with the other upcoming ‘South’ nations India, Brazil and South Africa.


Has Obama’s performance has really committed the others to more transparency and innovative steps? Let’s stay optimistic: Brazil has announced no less than a 39 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, recently. Obama’s new club may yet offer perspective – if politicians and NGO’s can cash in on them…

What then should be the new course for the environmentalists? First and foremost, the climate wars have reconfirmed that environmental action will never be popular with ruling elites and therefore needs an adamant scientific foundation.

The bigger the vested interests in business-as-usual, the stronger the evidence should be. And, if doubts exist, the more transparent NGO’s should operate. Hysterics and false PR like the lie of “endangered” polar bears (the population is thriving, and can be expected to adapt well to a change of habitat) do not fit that demand.


Reversely, science itself must clearly reconsider its social position. For over two decades, research centers have conformed to ever stronger pressures - both political and financial - to deliver ‘socially useful applied science’. Pure science and independent research are getting rare.


If science does not regain sufficient independence and jealously guards its methodical rigor, it will, in the public’s eye, end up a ‘bought’ business, bereft of credibility and dancing to some sponsors’ – be they green or coal black - tune.

In short: the climate change hypothesis is not ripe yet. Green NGO’s should and scientists should hold each other rigorously to their public duties, for everyone’s sake.


Innovative partners
On a more practical level, targeting the platform of world politics, is not the most clever angle for climate action right now. The latest generation of world leaders is looking for a new balance, they should be given a bit of room to move for a little while.


Innovative engineers and parts of the corporate world may be more proper immediate partners in finding ways out. They are the ones that must be convinced to invest in new practical sustainable solutions - and flexible ones: we must be prepared for climatic surprises!


Likewise, it’s no use getting obsessed with fighting the all powerful fossil fuel lobbies. They won’t budge, unless by raw political and market power. UN ‘climate chief’ Yvo de Boer has set the example, resigning for a job in the corporate world. It’s business that must be the source of the real solutions, he explained.


Environmental groups, as did De Boer, had better focus on strengthening promising industries and technologies, that may offer commercially attractive alternatives. Be it super efficient solar, other new energy companies, or desperately needed adaptation technologies for vulnerable third world regions: all of these need more massive, intelligent support, if they are to be given any chance at all..