The Risk-Monger

What has been the news out of the UNFCCC climate change conference at Cancun that started at the beginning of this week? Was it that the rest of the world lost interest? Was it that the IPCC shenanigans have led to its irrelevance? Was it the unfortunate timing of it starting during the coldest November on record? Or was it the evidence of how badly off the rails the environmentalist NGO agenda has veered?

Cancun marks a manifestation of the crisis that the environmental NGO community has been quietly facing for quite some time. After a decade of major successes on themes like climate, chemicals, pesticides and GMOs; after a decade where they managed to get their people on important boards and government positions from the EU to the UN offices; after a decade where fundraising achieved annual revenues topping €300 million for groups like WWF and Greenpeace; after a decade of continually wrong-footing industry by damning them as lobbyists in their most successful lobbying campaign; the NGO community has had to face the reality threatening to undermine them. Their success over the past decade had a superficial foundation, based largely on slick communications campaigns – a certain form over substance, evidence or facts. Climate-gate marked the turning point that has put the NGO agenda in crisis and they are stuck in Cancun now facing the music.

The NGO gains over the last decade have been based on what I have called elsewhere: commonality. Commonality is the portrayal that everyone with common sense agrees with us, so there is no need to bother any more with research or analysis – “We all agree” so just change the way we do things (and do it fast). Often fear is injected into common sense to get people motivated to act, be concerned (and donate!). Commonality – the perception that we all agree – removes the need to check the research, evidence or facts. Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff series provide brilliant examples of commonality – with common sense shouting so loud (Duh! Who would want to poison babies?) that one has to look very deep through the poetic rhetoric to see who is actually funding these projects. And what policymaker today has the courage to stand up against something that “We all agree on”? Commonality underlies the precautionary logic which differs from the scientific logic we have been using since Francis Bacon.

But commonality is an insidious tool that quietly but consistently works its way into our narratives and can allow us to accept horrible consequences. The Nazis used commonality to justify horrendous crimes against humanity (and many of Goebbels’ relentless communications techniques are alive and well in Greenpeace campaigns). In 1945, Allied forces faced stunned German civilians who still could not comprehend why the British didn’t just surrender in 1942. Commonality runs deep, even after the force of facts exposes it.

What are some commonality campaigns NGOs have led that have or could result in horrific consequences:

  • We all agree that pesticides are dangerous to our health and that we must go organic. The evidence is rather flimsy here (just Google: Ames + pesticides + coffee to see how scientifically silly this argument is), but the consequences are that the EU is now importing a large amount of food and feed and, with the recent biofuel land grab in Africa, we are preparing for serious food security and famine risks. The commonality is so strong here that the EU Pesticides Directive was passed without an impact assessment (we didn’t need to know more as we all agreed).
  • We all agree that toxic chemicals must be removed. Commonality has told us that synthetic chemicals are toxic (but don’t worry about natural chemicals or defining toxicity) and that chemistry has brought us nothing but poison. REACH is leading the way for Europe to become a nostalgic backwater, forsaking progress and innovation for some Swedish ideal of ecological purity. We can only hope that China continues to produce the technologies and products needed to advance and maintain our quality of life.
  • We all agree that coal must be relegated back to the era of the dinosaurs and that the future is in wind and solar. This is cute, and while developing carbon capture and storage technologies is far less expensive than investing in research to chase the dream of making solar or wind both sufficient and sustainable, commonality says coal must be abandoned. Energy, once a basic right in developed countries, will soon become a luxury (under a commonality-twisting concept called a smart grid), but since policymakers perceive that ‘we all agree’, who are they to stand in our way.
  • We all agree that GMOs are a contamination of the food chain that we all don’t want. This NGO commonality campaign is the winner of the “Goebbels must be proud” award (evil industry forcing Frankenfoods down our throats!). The WTO had the courage to recognise that the anti-GMO arguments are completely devoid of science or facts, and still European food producers and retailers all stay scared in their rabbit-holes while other countries advance and innovate. But denying African farmers from using modern agricultural technologies (under threat of lost export markets) because “we all agree” that we know better about GMOs is a crime against humanity.
  • We all agree that climate change is real, man-made and must be addressed immediately (TckTckTck). This one was the mother of commonality as it diverted attention from scientific debate on the data toward political campaigning (bringing political activists into scientific organisations to shake things up). Anyone who disagreed with the commonality science was branded an enemy of the planet and had their “books burnt” during IPCC meetings. It was quite effective until Climate-gate last year exposed the weakness of their arguments, the manipulation of their strategists and the motivation of the political leaders. Commonality caught naked.

Climate-gate exposed the insidiousness of commonality and revealed the weak foundations of political activists who played with the science to build up a wider fear-based agreement. The superficial campaigns built on slick communications has led the NGO community to have a major rethink about their campaign strategies.

Some living in RSS-induced closed communities still believe that “We all agree” and any hiccups in their mission are due to evil corporate lobbyists (and they reassure each other of this on their Facebook pages). But there are those who see the loss of voice in Cancun as a warning of the need for more campaign integrity. It is possible that “we all don’t agree” and they would have to start listening to other stakeholders, considering compromises and being less idealistic. For many, these are uncomfortable thoughts. Should they abandon campaigns based on commonality and start using facts and evidence? “We all agree” on what they should do. It is a question though of how they will spin it.

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  1. Dear Risk Monger,

    Since you state the importance of checking the ‘facts’ before any action is taken, could you tell us from where you have the information that this month is the coldest on record?

    I fear that you may have confused climate with weather, when the last decade has been the warmest on record according to NASA

    More extreme winters are also a sign of climate change. This is because the sea, as a liquid, heats up in less time than the earth, as a solid. So the increased evaporation leads to abnormal rainfalls, snow and weather as we are seeing almost everywhere.

    I do not see less voices calling for a change in economic direction with regards to climate, but rather less voices citing ‘Climate Gate’, which was barely a storm in a teacup.

    But perhaps the fact that there is less attention being paid to Cancun gives a better chance of taking advance measures before ensuring a better quality of life, as you put it, becomes inherently more expensive (as the Stern report, taking a risk-based analysis, showed:

    What examples would suffice for you to say that man-made global warming is happening?

  2. Thanks Mark for catching me out on the coldest November – it was announced in the Belgian press in relation to the very poor showing at last Sunday’s demonstration on Climate Change (but I don’t have the exact data and mentioned it only as a passing question in jest). As you rightly say, weather is not climate, but since Robert T Watson left the IPCC, we are no longer reminded of this, but rather Pachauri uses a sunny day as a prophecy of doom. Regarding climate, it is not certain that the last ten years have been the warmest – it depends on your baseline but it seems that the previous decade was warmer. It is not clear enough to assume commonality with such statements.
    This of course is not the point – whether climate change is man-made or not (or whether it is happening or not) is less important that the belief that man is so bold as to be able to stop the sun from warming or that he can cool the oceans. This commonality, reinforced by the Stern report, is causing us to direct precious resources towards building carbon-free temples of inutility rather than providing clean drinking water and sanitation or fighting diseases that kill thousands every day. This is where commonality becomes horrific. See my comb-over blog for my views there. I also refer there about the snake-oil salesmen of the business community trying to use our climate commonality as a means for profit – don’t assume that their support for the “war on climate” is further scientific support. The environmental-industrial complex only adds to commonality.
    As far as your view of Climate-gate being a storm in a tea-cup, I wish you well, but can only think of how long it took for those German civilians in 1945 to realise the world did not all think like them.

  3. Dear Risk Monger,

    Surely labelling those who can see climate change occuring as ‘Nazis’ follows more commonality than anything else. Another way of looking at WW II is to compare those denying climate change with Neville Chamberlain claiming that we have ‘peace in our time’…

    So the Belgian press drew a cheap link between cold weather and global warming, when it actually serves as proof. I trust it was not in the same paper that the 90-00 decade was recorded as being warmer than the last one?

    You say “it depends on your baseline” to measure when the warmest decade was.. isn’t the baseline used the one comparing recorded temperatures by bodies such as NASA, which generate a common view for good reason?

    I see that you consider hunger to be a real danger to humanity. Don’t you think that this and other problems may have something to do with climate change?

    For example; desertification, which is accelerating in Africa, is threatening water supply there. Loss of biodiversity is taking away our bee populations and costing us more money on products that damage our soil and so on…

    As for the actual policies for dealing with climate change and businessmen making use of them, they can be open to debate. But as to improving ‘quality of life’ as you write, considering the social problems so linked to environmental ones now- don’t you think we have been doing something wrong?

  4. Until recently, climate change was the dominant narrative – like the cold war or the war on terror, the narrative is used to organise society (whether it is on Madison Avenue or in the Berlaymont). The climate narrative was accentuated even more as the academe proliferated it (need for funding weighed over the need for sound research).
    Dominant narratives affect our thinking – so we can accept logic gymnastics like: if it is hot, it is due to climate change; if it is cold? Climate change? If there is poverty and hunger? Climate change. Economic decline? Climate change. In 2001, I am not making this up, a researcher tied to the IPCC got funding to try to show how climate change could affect the earth’s rotation (sadly, his results proved inconclusive, except for the need for further research).
    The commonality that develops from such narratives can lead to us tolerating horrific things (like ignoring poverty because we think we can better spend our time, energy and money solving what we have been told is the problem). The link with Nazi Germany is to show that commonality can be insidious (although I do feel that Greenpeace is anti-democratic and uses politically manipulative communication techniques that would make Goebbels proud).
    We would like to trust organisations like NASA or the IPCC but recent experience has shown how cavalier these organisations have been (probably because the narrative had made them lazy). That IPCC used unvetted WWF political research to claim how soon the Himalayan glaciers would disappear is irresponsible (Pachauri isn’t even pretending any more to say that the IPCC is a science-based organisation). NASA chose to overlook their own satellite data that showed last year’s Antarctic summer glacial melt was the lowest since satellite imaging began. An oversight or selective research (try the University of East Anglia)? Trust is lost by the foot and gained by the inch … and this is more than just a storm in the tea-cup for scientific credibility (I have blogged a lot lamenting the loss to our trust in expert information).

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