Not entirely omniscient
26 July 2014 06:55 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Environmental backpedalling picks up pace

  • Ivo Vegter
Mark Lynas started the year with a bombshell about genetically modified crops. The kind George Monbiot, who has had his differences with Lynas, dropped last year over nuclear power. Is environmentalism stepping back from ever-shriller alarmism, and awakening to science?

Finding something to write about is always hard when you return from holidays. I, for one, prefer to spend a fortnight or so away from the information overload of a columnist’s daily life, perhaps to relax with the gentler rigour of Project Euler, or to get lost in books about New York’s rats and the Piltdown forgery.

My thanks, therefore, go to Mark Lynas, for a speech he gave to the Oxford Farming Conference on 3 January 2013.

“I want to start with some apologies,” he began. “For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up [genetically modified] crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

Do read the speech. It is worthy of wider attention than a few farmers in the English countryside. In short, he changed his mind because: “I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist… What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.”

In a recent feature for Africa in Fact, a publication of Good Governance Africa, I concluded that “The conservative views [on GM crops] of international agencies and rich-world environmentalists are denying Africa access to technology that could improve its own food security, and is transforming agriculture elsewhere in the developing world.”

This view also chimes with the theme of my recent book, Extreme Environment, in which I examine various environmental causes to show that their routine exaggeration leads to irrational fear, unnecessary costs and regulatory over-reach. This harms any country, but is particularly hard to stomach in a developing country struggling with high poverty and unemployment such as South Africa.

Slowly, in the face of relentless empirical evidence, growing signs of policy failure and a better grasp of the science, some environmentalists are changing these harmful views.

Of course, those who admit to having been wrong do not ordinarily include activists of the kind one might encounter at lobby groups, or indeed in the halls of academia, where environmentalists have long tried to set the agenda. And to be fair to the orthodox environmentalists, Mark Lynas was never really “one of them”.

He was always more of a “bright green”, to use the nomenclature developed by Alex Steffen a few years back. Steffen explains: “[B]right green environmentalism is a belief that sustainable innovation is the best path to lasting prosperity, and that any vision of sustainability which does not offer prosperity and well-being will not succeed. In short, it's the belief that for the future to be green, it must also be bright.”

“Light greens” are the common or garden greenies next door, who consider environmentalism a simple lifestyle choice. They buy reusable shopping bags, use compact fluorescent light bulbs, recycle their garbage, and collect rainwater for garden irrigation, before going to sleep content in the knowledge that they’ve done their little bit to “save the planet”.

By contrast, “dark greens” are an altogether more dystopian lot, who dislike modernity, capitalism and industrialisation, employ alarmist language if not outright advocacy of doom, and pine for a return to the mythical bucolic idyll of pre-industrial society.

Lynas has great faith in technology, and believes not only that people are capable of intelligent responses to environmental issues, but that innovation is the most desirable way forward. Bright green, in other words.

George Monbiot, a left-wing journalist and columnist of a more dark green persuasion, has much more in common with the environmental orthodoxy. He once sneeringly called Lynas a “techno-utopian”, for having the temerity to claim that environmentalists sometimes get it wrong. Monbiot credits the failure of environmentalist causes not to greens, but to “a powerful counter-movement, led by corporate-funded think tanks, [which] has waged war on green policies”.

It’s a stock response, and one echoed by Adam Welz, writing in Noseweek, who (falsely) insinuates that I too am a paid shill for unnamed corporate interests or the sort of think tanks that happen to agree with me.

Lynas’s particular subject, which so inflamed Monbiot, was nuclear power, about which he wrote a renewed defence early last year. Monbiot’s view of Lynas at the time is instructive, because he, too, not much later, changed his mind about a green cause célèbre or two.

He joined the “techno-utopian” camp on nuclear power after the Fukushima incident, for example. Not long afterwards, he decided that he’d waited long enough for the oil to run dry, and wrote: “We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all.” (I wrote about Monbiot’s u-turns here.)

GM crops, nuclear power and running out of resources are all among the examples of environmental exaggeration I tackle in my columns and my book, along with such cases as the discredited link between vaccination and autism, the fear of pesticides such as DDT and its impact on the fight against malaria, the rejection of food additives, and of course, the (presumed) grave risks of shale gas drilling.

About that green hobby horse, the news is also good. South Africa lifted its moratorium on shale gas exploration, conveniently timing it to coincide with the release of my book. The UK lifted its ban on what engineers (for short) and environmentalists (for rhetorical impact) call “fracking”. The water in Gasland’s poster town, Dimock, Pennsylvania, has been tested and found to be just fine. An article in the New York Times notes that the state’s health department found shale gas drilling could indeed be conducted safely.

Amid all these recantations, what of man-made global warming? Both Lynas and Monbiot still believe it is a genuine crisis that requires urgent intervention of some description.

However, James Lovelock, one of the spiritual fathers of the environmental movement and author of The Gaia Hypothesis, was also once an alarmist. And by “alarmist”, I don’t just mean I disagree with him. I mean he predicted that “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”.

Now aged 93, he also backpedalled spectacularly last year. 

Speaking to MSNBC, which is not exactly a hotbed of right-wingers, Lovelock said: “The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened. The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now.”

How inconvenient. 

The UK Meteorological Office has just revised its decadal global warming forecast, and the new chart looks startlingly different from a similar, but altogether more alarmist, chart it had previously been punting. No doubt the latter image will soon be scrubbed, but while they’re both up, note that the Met Office now expects global temperatures to remain roughly constant, instead of rising sharply.

This, too, is inconvenient. 

Especially for the likes of Phil Jones, of ClimateGate infamy, who in 2009 said: “Bottom line: the ‘no upward trend’ has to continue for a total of 15 years before we get worried.” Now that it has been 15 years, he sputters lamely that he’ll start worrying at 20 years – and here the Met Office comes out with a chart that says it expects nothing very much to happen. Awkward.

Perhaps the lesson should be that if Jones is “worrying” about a lack of global warming, we probably needn’t worry about too much of it. Environmental exaggeration will always be with us, and the alarmists will usually be proven wrong. 

After all, it is a perfectly scientific observation that the environment responds to some degree to human activity, or that the long-term global temperature trend is rising, as one would expect in an inter-glacial period that has not yet reached its maximum. The same is not true, however, for alarmist environmental slogans that predict the worst catastrophes, unless coercive government policies urgently intervene.

One cannot call the prognostication of imperfect and incomplete computer models “the science”. One cannot call an appeal to “consensus” a “scientific consensus”, when it is largely driven by politicians, bureaucrats and green-tech special interests. Even they appear to have little appetite for renewing or replacing the Kyoto Protocol, which officially expired on New Year’s Eve last week. And even if there really were a “scientific consensus” – which there isn’t, as this Forbes article neatly explains – science is not a democracy. 

A hypothesis that cannot be falsified except by empirical data from the distant future does not follow in the grand tradition of the scientific method. Especially not when empirical data from today already casts grave doubts on the predictions, and the prognosticators themselves privately confess the limits of their data, the incompleteness of their theories and the inadequacies of their numerical methods of extrapolation.

Lynas admitted to “anti-science environmentalism” in his misguided support for “the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with”. He erred in instinctively and emotionally accepting the idea that GM was evil, without ever understanding the science behind it.

He now believes that the GM opposition is anti-science, and that he was wrong about it, just as he said in 2010 environmentalists were wrong about many other things. Yet he maintains that climate skepticism is anti-science, too.

I, of course, beg to differ. I hold that that man-made global warming alarmism is another example of the science being exaggerated for political ends. And unlike the prophesies of climate alarmists, the predictions made in 1989 by at least one prominent skeptic, Richard Lindzen, have held up well for almost a quarter of a century.

As I was writing this, a green-minded artist challenged me in the same terms as Lynas: “I know you write about dangers of ‘alarmism’, but your position on [man-made global warming] is the intellectual cousin of anti-GMO folly.”

Well, I’ll make him (and Lynas) a deal. If I turn out to be wrong, I’ll also publicly admit it. But in the meantime, the evidence appears to be swinging towards the skeptic camp on climate change too. That’s not anti-science. That is science.

Is there any reason to believe that environmentalists exaggerate most every other issue they raise, but that they’re unexpectedly right about their most cherished and far-reaching predictions of global disaster? DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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