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Scientists made scapegoats for climate change

Reading the blast of outraged hot air in the media about a flawed figure relating to Himalayan glaciers found in a 2007 summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), people might be starting to feel a little uneasy about the science of global warming.

So just to get back to reality, the World Glacier Monitoring Service, which has been measuring 90 glaciers in mountain ranges across the world continuously since the 1980s, has just published figures for 2007/08. These were compiled from satellite images and in-situ measurements of glaciers across the globe.

They found that “the average mass balance of the glaciers with available long-term observation series around the world continues to decrease” and that “the new data continues the global trend in strong ice loss over the past few decades”.

Glaciers retreat

These, plus hundreds of other findings allowed the IPCC to recognise the flawed figure but at the same time restate:

Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by melt water from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.

Yet the backlash against science and scientists continues. Yesterday the Information Commissioner accused the University of East Anglia of “crimes” under the Freedom of Information Act, piling more pressure on scientists embroiled in the leaked emails teacup tempest. And a couple of weeks ago scientists (and meteorologists) were forced to explain that a few days of heavy snow does not “disprove” the reality of global warming.

Climate change deniers virtually write as if the scientists themselves are working towards global warming – that global warming is being created out of the science itself. In capitalist society there are two common perspectives on how nature works. One is “teleological”, that is the religious or quasi-religious view that nature is working towards a specific outcome. Or there is the metaphysical, or post-modern view which would argue that there is no purpose or grand narrative in nature – stuff just happens.

There is a very different perspective – a dialectical perspective, which does not artificially separate “cause” and “effect”, but views them as interacting and contradictory opposites. Karl Marx, a key proponent of the dialectical approach, was a big fan of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species not only because it clarified much about the development of humans in nature, but also because Darwin had dealt teleology in science “a mortal blow”.

About dialectics Marx wrote that it “includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up.” It is this unavoidable breaking up of the present state of things that the climate change deniers and their corporate and political sponsors cannot countenance, even if it is heralded by a disintegration of the polar ice cap.

The dialectical method, beloved of eminent scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, can be of huge assistance to climate scientists in grasping the complex interaction between their work on the crisis of global warming, and the crises of economy and politics which are not parallel, but intimately interacting processes taking place in nature.

There is an actual political conflict going on here and scientists are increasingly finding it impossible to stand aloof from it. And of course it is a life and death struggle for all of us, as the reactionary backlash against action to reduce emissions gathers pace in the United States and elsewhere.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
28 January 2010

Your comments

Charles says:

A very timely article, more up to date than other websites where I have looked for ecosocialist responses to the highly exaggerated accounts of the most recent attempts to discredit the scientific basis of global warming. This includes the Climate and Capitalism site, although that one is generally excellent. One of the most depressing things I noticed about the UEA emails storm-in-a-teacup was the way George Monbiot fell for it. Though no socialist, George has been one of the best people exposing the evils of corporations, including the huge environmental damage they inflict and the lies they have told, or paid to be told, to deny the reality of global warming. More positively, he did however draw attention to the book by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, "Climate Cover-up :The Campaign to Deny Global Warming" (2009). This book is remarkable and all the more convincing beause Hoggan is himself a PR man who initially was a sceptic on this issue. Not now, and this book should be a must for all ecosocialists.

A much harder read, but fascinating in my opinion, is the report by Larry Lohman for that great organisation, The Corner House, entitled, "When Markets are Poison: Learning about Climate Policy from the Financial Crisis" - which can be downloaded free. The parallels Lohman draws between the derivatives markets, which had centre stage in the present financial crisis, and carbon trading (unsurprisingly with many of the same banksters and other predatory capitalists involved) is most instructive. If I quote just one bit from his conclusions, you should get the general picture I think : "The markets in uncertainty and carbon created new possibilities for accumulation against a background of growing worldwide inequality and disappointing returns on traditional investment."

Those last few words suggest Marx's theory of falling rates of profits is as important as ever.

Pamela says:

Excellent and insightful, Penny. Keep it up!