OUR BURNING PLANET

Right of reply: A democratic eco-socialist calls out self-proclaimed libertarian Ivo Vegter

By Leonie Joubert 30 July 2019

Which journalists are doing the greater disservice to society, in terms of reporting on the climate or critiquing the economic roots of climate collapse: those raising the alarm or those downplaying the seriousness, asks the writer. (Illustration: AdobeStock)

By manufacturing a false controversy that there’s a lobby to shut him down, Daily Maverick columnist Ivo Vegter may have scored an own goal: he draws attention to the shortfalls of his analysis and the dangers of amplifying voices that prop up the status quo that is driving climate collapse.

In a recent piece for Daily Maverick, I argued that the media has downplayed the impacts of atmospheric carbon pollution on the climate system, to the point where this life-support system might be slipping into an unstable state that could be hostile to all of life on Earth, not just human life. Newsrooms, I argued, need to rethink the guiding editorial principle when deciding on what ideas they publish: what’s the harm to society of amplifying these ideas?

Given the ongoing political and cultural inertia underlying our decades-long failure to respond with the necessary urgency to reduce global carbon emissions, I argued that this recalibration of the measure of “harm” should apply to any business-as-usual reporting if it upholds the status quo that feeds this inertia.

This shouldn’t just apply to reporting that misrepresents or underplays what the climate science is saying. It also applies to reporting that fails to critique the political economy that’s driving climate collapse – the economic system of extractive capitalism. Honest and responsible reporting will not ignore all the health, environmental, social, or economic “externalities” of carbon pollution. If reporting ignores these costs, then surely it allows the status quo to continue and is harmful to society?

(In this earlier Daily Maverick piece, I take particular aim at the business media for failing in its watchdog role: it cheer-leads those who play by the rules of the economic game that is driving climate collapse, instead of challenging the rules of the game itself.)

This article, which Daily Maverick Opinionista Ivo Vegter reads as a deliberate effort to deplatform him, germinated out of an argie-bargie that started on Twitter a week or so earlier. I won’t go into the minutiae of the spat, because the organic spiderweb nature of Twitter threads becomes too unwieldy to hold a coherent piece of logic into one neat chord, and a he-said/she-said post-mortem will waste precious editorial space. It might also bore you to death.

In short, though, it started with a thread where critics were taking on Vegter for a piece he’d recently penned on GMOs. I waded in with a broader reflection on why a title like the Daily Maverick was still giving a voice like Vegter’s so much space when many critics have raised concerns over the years about how he takes a deliberately contrarian pro-capitalist view and has been known to cherry-pick science to support this view. Several other environmental writers and activists jumped into the fray, asking why indeed a left-leaning title like Daily Maverick publishes him.

(Daily Maverick is neither “left” or “right” leaning publication – Ed)

Vegter leapt on the opportunity to position this as a deliberate effort to have his voice shut down. He tweeted about it ad nauseam, in spite of both myself and an increasingly exasperated Daily Maverick’s Kevin Bloom saying that this wasn’t the case (I’ve got several screen grabs of our responses to Vegter, should anyone be that interested). Vegter was evidently maxing out the opportunity to present himself as the persecuted lone wolf fighting valiantly for the causes of reason and sense. The fact that he’s tweeting about the deplatforming thing more than a month later, suggests he’s still trying to work this angle.

The Twitter-storm got me thinking, though, about a more philosophical thing: this notion of “harm” in the context of editorial decision-making. It was out of this that my article grew. This is not a call to censor any voices or shut down critical thinking. It’s a reminder that our voices have not been critical enough, that we have failed to disrupt the political economy driving climate collapse, and it’s time to self-correct. All of us, not just free-market contrarians like Vegter.

Atmospheric carbon concentrations are higher now than they’ve been in three million years – 415 parts per million. The last time they were this high, the world was an average 3°C to 4°C warmer than today, and Antarctica had trees growing on it. The temperature threshold we’re trying not to cross in the next decades is 1.5°C, but we’ve probably locked into an inevitable overshoot of the target if carbon concentrations are this high already, and climbing.

The climate regime of three million years ago was entirely different to the one in which modern humans evolved over the past 200,000 years and in which the last 12,000 years of “civilisation” developed.

Most of the emissions that have put us back at those concentration levels were placed into the atmospheric landfill in the past 50 or so years. For any newsperson with three or so decades on the job, that means much of this polluting has happened under our watch. And yet, here we are: the United Nations saying that we are counting one extreme weather event a week around the globe, showing how unstable the climate has become; that the Arctic is melting so fast, 70 years ahead of schedule, that we may have slipped across a tipping point into a completely new climate regime; and that we are headed for massive overshoot on urgent emissions reduction targets.

Vegter’s laborious 4,000-word response to the misreading of my message shows a few things. Firstly, his tetchiness: the fact that he takes the article so personally when it is clearly a call to all newsrooms to improve the quality of our reporting, suggests that it hit a nerve. Maybe, after years of being paid by the Daily Maverick to be a controversial Opinionista, he can hear the growing volume of scientific consensus beginning to drown out his delicately contrarian voice. Maybe he is starting to worry that he might be called on for his reporting to be more reflective of the “externalities” linked with the environmental topics he likes to tackle with his libertarian slant: plastics pollution, GMOs, carbon pollution, wildlife trade.

Secondly, he may have made a tactical misstep with his article, flushing himself out in front of his critics by revealing his misunderstanding or deliberate misreading of how scientific consensus works, the extent of carbon pollution and its impact on the climate system, and the minutiae of the science underpinning all of this.

By manufacturing this false controversy about an attempt to shut him down, Vegter may, in fact, be in the process of deplatforming himself: he’s sowed the seed of the idea in others’ minds, while also drawing the full scrutiny of the public’s and editors’ eyes to the shortfalls of his analysis and the dangers of allowing his voice to continue to be heard on matters relating to climate.

The science is complex, even for those trained in the scientific method itself or the various fields contributing to our understanding of climate science. The process of reviewing the global body of this science, done by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) every seven years in their assessment reports, is probably the most rigorous meta-analysis process in the history of science. Several thousand scientists spend a good few years poring over the latest research on the extent of carbon pollution buildup in the atmosphere, the impacts, the vulnerabilities, and the extent to which we need to alter course from our current pollution trends. This peer-review process, and the content they’re reviewing, is mind-bogglingly technical.

Journalists can be forgiven for not fully appreciating the rigour of the process, from our place in the peanut gallery.

But for us to be blind to the economic system that is driving climate collapse, or to wilfully push the agenda that allows the ongoing corporate capture of the atmospheric space at the cost of a life-supporting climate system, is another matter altogether.

Every journalist and newsroom takes an ideological position. Vegter is a self-proclaimed libertarian with a pro-market agenda. If I were to slap a label on myself, I’d put myself in the camp of democratic eco-socialists like Wits University associate professor Vishwas Satgar. When we take a position, we know it will colour the pens with which we write. But our work still needs to be evidence-based and credible. The question is, in the context of which view supports the status quo or the political and cultural inertia driving climate collapse, which voice gets amplified, and which not? And how much is our ideological lens colouring the way we choose evidence to support our case?

Vegter argues that my effort to deplatform him is an attempt to shift the “Overton window” – the range of views that we allow or see as acceptable in the public discourse. He’s right. I suppose I am trying to shift the window. Not by censoring critical voices, though, but by demanding that all voices be more critical. It’s a call to move the conversation away from the hegemonic view that has dominated our discourse for decades, one which has enabled the continued inertia on appropriate emissions reduction responses.

Vegter’s pro-business position has enjoyed a decade of airtime in Daily Maverick (the earliest archive entry I find is from August 2009), and yet he still argues that capitalism is not a threat to life on Earth in spite of the mounting body of evidence to the contrary.

As I pointed out in my article, you could only have argued that apartheid was good for the South African economy if you narrowed your lens to look at the benefits to the state, big business, and the white, favoured minority. You would have had to ignore the cost of apartheid for the majority in the country who were not only excluded from the formal economy through deliberate legislative measures, but suffered the dreadful consequences of being denied access to education, healthcare, fair policing, and good nutrition, and paid the price of the structural violence of the system designed to lock people into poverty.

To ignore the full costs of carbon emissions on society and communities (the cost of extreme weather events, food shortages, the political instability, mass migration) is not only intellectually dishonest and inaccurate, it’s outright harmful.

It’s time that writers like Vegter let their thinking and analysis catch up with the scientific evidence and do a more rigorous critique of the economic system driving the current emission trajectory.

This is an opportunity for all of us, in all newsrooms, to recalibrate our measure of “harm” in our reporting. It’s a chance for peer-to-peer accountability. It’s a call for every news editor and journalist in the country to up her game. If we file shoddy copy, or copy that we deem harmful to society by this new measure of harm, send it back to us and demand a rewrite.

Muddling through the mud pile

By manufacturing a false controversy that there’s a lobby to shut him down, Vegter may have scored an own goal: he draws attention to the shortfalls of his analysis and the dangers of amplifying voices that prop up the status quo that is driving climate collapse. Here’s a blow-by-blow response to Vegter’s article on the supposed dangers of “overplaying” the climate crisis.

As the Mail & Guardian’s Sipho Kings writes in his review of Ivo Vegter’s book Extreme Environment in 2012, the Daily Maverick Opinionista Vegter’s strategy is to heap piles of information-dense prose on readers and hope that it will smother any discussion and bamboozle critics. This makes tackling one of his pieces a laborious and time-consuming job. There are some glaring problems and wilful blind spots in his most recent article which attacks “global warming alarmists”, both in his understanding of climate science and the market forces surrounding carbon pollution.

Infinite growth on a finite planet: Vegter says we aren’t running out of resources, and that human ingenuity is allowing us to overcome scarcity. First, my original article talks specifically about how we’re running out of atmospheric space. The atmosphere “landfill” that we’ve been dumping our carbon pollution into for the past 300 or so years is filling up fast, and the extreme weather events we’re seeing globally are a sign that the consequences of that pollution are now beginning to spill out and cause harm. This is basic physics, rather than a “laughable” claim.

The idea that we’re “running out” doesn’t just apply to resources (although in Vegter’s misreading of my piece, he thinks I’m talking about resources, which I wasn’t). The “running out” also applies to the environmental services that we need in order to have healthy, functioning life support systems: a stable atmospheric climate system; water systems; healthy soils, etc. The drought that hammered southern Africa between 2015 and 2018, that decimated farmlands and livestock across the region and nearly ran Cape Town’s municipal dams dry in January 2018, is a sign of the new kind of scarcity that we have to start adapting to.

As associate professor Gina Ziervogel and I point out in this new book, published through the University of Cape Town’s African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI), Cape Town’s “Day Zero” showed how day-to-day water management challenges and inherited development backlogs collide with a climate shock like this drought, threatening access to something that is a basic human right and core to survival, for individuals, communities, and economies.

Climate shocks don’t happen in isolation. They overlay on to issues of governance, infrastructure, population and economic growth, and any fault lines that may already leave a community vulnerable to that shock. Water shortages in recent years in major cities like Cape Town, Sao Paulo, and many Indian cities this year, are a red flag of what’s to come.

Second, we are running out of resources. Earth Overshoot Day calculates that we are “overspending” on our planetary resource budget every year. When it was first counted in 1970, we crossed this overspend line on 29 December. Last year, we crossed it on 1 August. Now, in 2019, we will cross it on 29 July, the earliest ever. Even analysts at the international banking group HSBC are quoting this overshoot analysis, fretting that the planet is running out of resources.

Limits to Growth: Human ingenuity isn’t allowing us to overcome scarcity, as Vegter claims. Neither is it allowing us to overcome the limits of our capitalist growth. In 1972, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers were commissioned by the Club of Rome think-tank to run a series of scenarios on expected trajectories for global pollution, food production, resource use, industrialisation, and population growth. They published these in the now-famous Limits to Growth report. Researchers at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne recently compared these modelled projections with the actual trends since the early 1970s and found them to be spot on. If we continue on this trajectory of consumption and waste production, the Melbourne study found, we’re headed for ecological collapse. How that expresses itself, and when, depends on whether we continue business-as-usual, or not.

Critiques of capitalism: When Vegter says that changing the economic system is a political question, not a scientific fact, he’s right. It is a political one. But that political response should be informed by scientific fact. The science underpinning carbon pollution and its consequences is clear. Critiques of the capitalist roots of this over-use of the atmospheric landfill, and planet-wise over-extraction of natural resources and ecosystem services, are wide and clear.

The free-market capitalism that Vegter claims has brought “so much progress and prosperity to the world” – would that be the same free-market capitalism that is allowing the corporate capture of the atmospheric space and other global natural commons? The same capitalism that’s driving global inequality, mass ecosystem extraction, the Sixth Mass Extinction, and now climate collapse? As mentioned in my original article: you can only argue that free-market capitalism is good for our economy and society if you don’t count the cost of the extreme weather events, and all the health, environmental, and political fallout that comes from shifts in regional climate. That’s a problem with our accounting system, and you have to be deliberately fraudulent or sloppy in your maths if you exclude those costs.

Yes, changing the economic system is going to hurt. But the cost of inaction will be far greater. Future instalments of the Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet series are going to paint the blunt picture of what the cost of ongoing inaction on carbon pollution is likely to be for the country and the global economy. But here are two teasers, one from the World Bank and another from Business Insurance.

Some of the best links between capitalist over-extraction and the devastation to the planet: The Climate Crisis, edited by Vishwas Satgar; David Pilling’s The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations; Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species; Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; Ha Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism; Economics After Capitalism by Derek Wall; A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism by Eric Holt-Giménez. Jason Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, and Capitalism in the Web of Life; and Patel & Moores A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. That’s just for starters.

Vegter is blind to our greatest domestic existential danger – pro-coal, pro-nuclear interests in SA: The single biggest obstacle to the South African economy making the urgent shift to a lower-carbon grid, is the vested pro-coal and pro-nuclear interests in the country. These are both within government and among their pals in the energy sector, who have capitalised on their close political relationships which give them undue influence in domestic energy policy and grid development decision-making in the interests of profits.

Evidence of corruption and vested political interests in the South African electricity sector have been surfacing on almost every transparency platform in the past few years: the public protector’s State of Capture inquiry in 2016, when advocate Thuli Madonsela had her hand on the tiller of corruption-busting; legal submissions in various court processes, including one challenging the state’s nuclear procurement processes; and press coverage of Eskom deliberately obstructing the utility-scale renewable energy programme by stalling on the sign-off of financial paperwork.

Here, Kevin Bloom gives more insight into the dirty dealings behind the nuclear lobby in government, and the links with the coal agenda. And here are two more which show why our Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is the fox watching the henhouse. Meanwhile, this article gives a quick speed-read overview of the vested coal interests skewing our energy policy decisions and profiteering in the coal contracts arena.

This corruption and patronage stop us – the biggest carbon emitter on the continent, and 14th biggest greenhouse gas emitter globally from making the urgent changes to the lower-carbon grid which modelling for both government’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) and the CSIR says is possible, desirable, and necessary. It flies in the face of the market readjustment that’s happening with startling speed – solar and wind power is now cheaper, unit for unit, than new-build coal generation in South Africa. It also puts rumble strips in front of our international emissions reduction commitments, which will turn us into a dinosaur economy as global markets start to penalise dirty exports.

Vegter has consistently turned a blind eye to these domestic vested interests of the coal and nuclear lobbies. His failure to tackle this makes him complicit in upholding a status quo that is a real, existential threat not only to this economy but to the stability of our climate.

The international fossil fuel lobbyists: Speaking of the fossil fuel lobby, if Vegter is in doubt about this, George Monbiot comprehensively exposes the fossil fuel lobby in his book Heat.

The language we ‘ape’ and the ‘global warming alarmists’: Are the global warming “alarmists” those who now choose to adopt new and more provocative language, like The Guardian? The London-based paper took an editorial policy decision last year to move away from the more bland and neutral term “climate change”, and infuse it with a sense of emergency by adopting terms like “climate breakdown” and “climate emergency”, which they now argue better reflects the science coming from the UN’s IPCC. But did the paper really just take this editorial position “on the advice of a 16-year-old kid with anxiety issues”? Environmentalist George Monbiot, one of The Guardian’s main contributors on climate issues, was using the term “climate breakdown” as far back as 2013, well before schoolgirl activist Greta Thunberg became the global voice that she did in 2018.

Vegter says it’s alarming that “adult environmental journalists are prepared to ape such ill-informed, intemperate and politically charged language”. He also identifies a tribe of “global warming alarmists” in the civil society community, like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and The Climate Project. Here Vegter is quoting William Briggs. This would be the same William Briggs who is an adviser to the libertarian think-tank The Heartland Institute, which The Guardian reported in 2012 “keeps prominent [climate] sceptics on its payroll and relies on millions in funding from [the] carbon industry”.

Science is self-correcting: The scientific method is a tool to observe and understand how the world works. It’s only as good as the hands in which it is used. It’s not perfect, but it is designed to learn and self-correct, through experimentation, controls to remove observer bias, through replicability, transparency, and through peer-to-peer oversight. Yes, there are cases of deliberate fraud (the Andrew Wakefield paper in the medical journal The Lancet which erroneously linked autism to the MMR vaccine is a case in point). And yes, even in the realm of climate analysis there have been cases of shoddy science. That needs to be tackled by the scientific community and by journalists. These critiques need to be taken on a case-by-case basis, tracking back each original claim to its methodology and peer-review process. This is part of the inbuilt self-correction which makes the scientific process robust. This need for critique and level-headed scepticism is not, however, a reason to continually cast doubt of the scientific consensus of the IPCC Assessment Report findings.

Does Vegter accept the authority of the UN’s IPCC, or not? Vegter weaves some convoluted logical half-knots in his 4,000-word spiel. At one point he quotes one of the recent IPCC Assessment Reports (burrowing deep into one report to select a small quote which informs his position, arguing that cyclone intensity isn’t increasing, but not reflecting the full complexity of the situation). Later in the article, though, he suggests that he’s wary of the emissions or climate modelling projections put out by the same scientific panel. He at once says he accepts the IPCC’s scientific consensus and then suggests he doesn’t have faith in the scientific consensus. And is he, with his own self-confessed “untrained opinion”, best placed to make a judgment call on the veracity of consensus?

The scientific language of ‘uncertainty’: One of the things that bedevils the communication of climate science is this question of how scientists speak about “uncertainty”. Responsible science needs to show measures of numerical certainty in its findings. For the layperson, this often reads as though the scientists are in doubt about their findings. Vegter’s piece creates exactly this kind of muddying of the waters, suggesting scientists still aren’t quite sure about the extent of environmental change owing to carbon pollution.

Yes, some puzzles do remain, some things are still unclear, and the communication of uncertainty is tricky, but the consensus (which I’m still not clear if Vegter accepts or not) points to an overwhelming conclusion about the extent of carbon pollution and its likely outcome.

Further to that, IPCC climate scientists have been critiqued in recent years for using language that is too moderate, and which is toned down to be politically more acceptable or less “alarmist”. Even many scientists think it’s time to self-correct on the tone of their message. These three articles address the reasons and outcomes of scientists using conservative language so that their message is politically more palatable: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is sharpening the language of its latest draft synthesis report…, The IPCC global warming report spares politicians the worst details and Climate realpolitik: South Africa’s ‘secret’ and ‘confidential’ slide to the wrong side of history.

• ‘Balancing’ the critique of the energy tech industry and the market forces driving them, versus ‘balancing’ the science of climate change – these are two different animals: Vegter says there are “innumerable ‘green technology’ companies… that benefit handsomely from climate alarmism. There is arguably more money in green alarmism than there is in scepticism” for these energy tech companies, he says. He goes on to say that it is my opinion that this kind of thing should not be subject to the basic journalistic tenets of “balance” through presenting both sides of an argument. Maybe his attention was waning because it’s clear that this isn’t what I was saying. I was speaking specifically about how journalists shouldn’t “balance” a point of evidence-based scientific consensus with a dissenting view, particularly not when that view is from a non-peer reviewed source or non-scientist like a politician, industry lobbyist, or lawyer.

A bog-standard news report that addresses the politics, economics or vested interests within the energy industry, be it clean energy tech or dirty energy tech, should be subject to the same reporting processes as any other news report.

You wouldn’t “balance” a story about the Earth being a sphere, with a contesting view from a Flat Earther. But if your story was on how a bunch of developers were paving over the Earth and turning it into a parking lot (regardless of whether it was round or disk-shaped), you might want to balance the story by getting a variety of views on the economic motivations of the developers from a few different economists or politicians, as long as they were credible, know their subject, and help give a complete picture.

Extreme weather events and climate change: Vegter is correct, climate scientists don’t link single extreme weather events directly to climate change. They talk about the likelihood of those events happening because of human-caused climate change. Responsible reporting should capture that nuance. Like this paper which explains that the recent Cape Town drought was three times more likely to occur because of human-caused climate change.

Cheap thrills at the expense of a life-supporting climate system – what’s the harm in that? Maybe one of the reasons Vegter’s column irks so many critics is the snideness of his tone. Like this piece from December 2015, where he equates media hysteria around climate change with the upcoming UN climate negotiations that year: this, he says, is just “hot air emitted by the 40,000 climate partygoers living it up in Paris”. Take that glib tone when you’re speaking about a mother from Beira, Mozambique, whose home and the entire community has been flattened by Cyclone Idai. Or a North African migrant drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean. Or a grandmother going into respiratory failure in a tin shack on the Cape Flats as her home cooks like an oven during a heat-wave. Getting a cheap thrill out of being contrarian and controversial is fine if it’s not causing harm. This kind of tone is not just dismissive of the seriousness of climate collapse, it’s also a cruel dismissing of the suffering that millions of people are already facing because of our unstable climate.

Which journalists are doing the greater disservice to society, in terms of reporting on the climate or critiquing the economic roots of climate collapse: those raising the alarm, or those downplaying the seriousness?

This isn’t a call to the Daily Maverick to shut Vegter’s column down. It’s an invitation to them to ask him to up his game. It’s an opportunity for every newsroom to improve the robustness of their analysis, not raise the shrillness of their voice in protest at being called out for sloppy thinking. DM

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