Notes From Underground #8: The Lab and the Play

In the eighth essay in the Notes From Underground series, Dougald Hine looks at the production of scientific knowledge around climate change and what we do with that knowledge. This week’s instalment is also about the history of environmentalism and what happens when climate scientists and artists collaborate. As usual, the essay is also available to listen to as a podcast or to watch on YouTube.

Image: Krister Kern, Julia Dufvenius, David Lenneman and Jennie Silfverhjelm in Medan klockan tickar, the play co-written by Dougald Hine. (Photography: Sören Vilks, Mira Åkerman, Fotografica. Illustration: Mattias Broberg.)

The first time we meet, he takes me around his lab, explaining the devices they are working on just now: this sealed metal tub contains a simulated ocean, churning with the gases they pump through it; in the rack over there, a kit for taking high-altitude measurements is assembled from a mix of off-the-shelf equipment and new components being made here for the task. He lights up when he talks about this work, and it’s a look I’ve seen before on the faces of craftsmen, hackers and engineers: the deep satisfaction of applying ingenuity to hard material problems and getting to take the time the job demands.

In the corridor that leads back to his office, he points out a photograph on the wall: a research station in the Arctic where he did fieldwork as a post-doc, thirty years ago. Later, I learn that this was also where he met his wife. On the shelf over his desk is a model of a Soviet spy plane his team hired in the mid-nineties from some offshoot of the Russian military. They used it to take measurements in the outer reaches of the atmosphere. ‘I do love flying,’ he admits.

I’m here because I’ve been commissioned to write a play – or rather, a quarter of a play, since four of us will work together on the script. Each writer is paired with a scientist. Our partners come from different fields, different backgrounds, different stages of career. What they have in common is that their research has brought them to the front line of the ecological crisis. Our task is to learn about their lives and tell four stories about what it’s like when the Anthropocene is your day job; when climate change is not something you read about in the newspaper, or make a placard about, or try not to think about, but the thing that is waiting on your desk at nine o’clock each morning. What does that do to you, as a human being?

So we sit in his office with cups of tea and I switch my recorder on and he starts to tell me the stories of his life.

*   *   *

I’d met climate scientists before. I’ve sat in public meetings and conference halls as they present their latest findings in everyday terms. As a journalist, I interviewed them about their work. But there are things that struck me only as a result of working on this play.

The first thing is that you don’t end up as a climate scientist because you started out with a burning concern for the damage we are doing to the planet; this must have been especially true among the older generation, those who set out on their careers before the evidence had mounted up. Rather, it starts with having a certain shape of mind, suited to particular kinds of intellectual tasks, and this, combined with the influences of your childhood – the world events and TV shows you grew up with – sets you pinballing through the early stages of an academic career. So you happen to take this course rather than that one, you wind up doing a PhD with a professor who has this big project going on, you find yourself doing fieldwork at that research station and meet someone and end up moving continents to live together, where you get put in an office next door to this other professor who needs help with an international research network he’s setting up – and somewhere down the line, suddenly or slowly, it comes to you that what you are working with is no longer just intellectually rewarding, but existentially terrifying. And this is the second thing that struck me: when you reach that point, there is little in your training as a scientist or in the culture of science that is going to help.

The methods of knowledge production that lead to our understanding of a thing like climate change depend on detachment. By acting as if the world can be held at arm’s length, science is able to learn about its workings. The power of this way of acting is undeniable, but when detachment is no longer possible – or desirable – the producers of knowledge reach the limit of their power. Some other kind of knowledge work is called for here, a set of practices less clearly marked on the maps of authority which our societies have drawn.

*   *   *

The modern Western environmental movement differed from the other new social movements that emerged in the second half of the 20th century in the closeness of its involvement with science. Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring is widely acknowledged as the catalyst to the grassroots environmentalism of the 1960s, was a marine biologist by training, and her professional background helped her to piece together the story of the impact of pesticides on ecosystems and humans. The figure of the concerned scientist continued to play a strong role in the movement’s development, as did the findings of research into the impact of human activities on the living world, but this was also a movement that was involved in questioning world views: the background maps and stories that shape our perception of the world and our sense of what is possible, while mostly appearing as just how things are.

As it traced the consequences of industrial production, environmentalism started to reopen political questions which had largely been closed off since the mid-19th century, when movements of left and right converged on a framing of the space of politics as the organisation and the distribution of the outputs of industrial society. By drawing attention to its disowned outputs – the scale of its ‘negative externalities’ – this movement called the core assumptions of industrial society into question. It entered into cultural critique, the calling into question of a way of life, and it opened a conversation about what other ways of living together might be possible.

This kind of environmentalism had its heyday in the 1970s, or so I’m told by those who are old enough to remember it. My own early political memories coincide with the green wave of the late 1980s, when the Green Party took 15 per cent across the UK in the Euro elections. Its German sister party had already established itself as a parliamentary force, while one of the lesser-known stories of 1989 is the role of environmentalism in the dissident movements which contributed to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. By then, the Brundtland Report had established ‘sustainable development’ as the frame within which the international community would talk about the planetary situation and the responses this might call for: a framing which yoked the pursuit of ecological sustainability to the trajectory of economic and technological development, without having demonstrated that this pairing could pull in the same direction.

The five years between the Brundtland Report and the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 mark a high tide of international concern and intergovernmental action around the environment that remains unsurpassed to this day. This was also the moment at which the environmental movement turned away from cultural critique and established a new relationship with science. No longer was the scientific evidence a starting point for a larger questioning of society or making political arguments; now the evidence itself was to make the case for change, to carry the weight and do the work of politics.

The turn is not hard to understand: in countries where Green politicians had entered parliament, the demands of working within existing institutions drove a certain kind of ‘realism’. Meanwhile, the journey of David Icke from third-division goalkeeper to BBC sports presenter to Green Party principal speaker to promoter of lizard-related conspiracy theories offered a cautionary example of how the attempt to call your whole culture into question could unravel.

The logic of the turn was clear enough, too: with the scientific evidence for the consequences of industrial activity growing, why get tangled up in arguments over world views and values? Surely the way forward was to bypass that kind of politics, to lay out the facts and figures that would prove the necessity of massive societal change? It helps that this is the kind of language our society says you’re meant to speak if you want to get taken seriously, if you want to get invited to the grown-up policy discussions. You can see the legacy of such a turn to this day in the fiercely dedicated journalism of George Monbiot and the standards to which he holds himself, publishing footnoted versions of every newspaper article he writes, his statements backed up with references to peer-reviewed papers. Though the gap between his self-imposed standards and those to which the rest of his profession holds itself might give a clue as to the flaw in this logic: the gap between the story about the authority of scientific evidence our society likes to tell and the way things work in practice.

Meanwhile, this turn within the environmental movement coincided with the rise of climate change in the environmental debate. In 1988, when the IPCC was set up, global warming was still seen as one among a number of potentially ominous threats; as the data came in and the models became more robust, its status was upgraded. If the grounds for alarm were growing, it’s also true that climate change – and the way that climate change is represented – was particularly amenable to quantitative evaluation. All the specific factors and local implications can be crunched into a global figure: the number of parts per million of CO2equivalent; the average temperature rise by 2100 as forecast by the models. This fungibility extends to encompass other ecological concerns, becoming a kind of currency of crisis: in place of older arguments for saving the whales, we now get papers demonstrating the contribution of whales to carbon sequestration.

*   *   *

The third thing I came to understand from the climate scientists I met, during and after the writing of that play, was their own shock at discovering how little the authority of science meant in practice. It reminded me of going to speak at a conference of hacker activists, a year or so after the release of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Their disillusionment was palpable: the evidence was there for everything they had suspected, everything they had tried to warn the rest of us about; now you could read about how the NSA was spying on you on the front page of The Guardianand The Washington Post– and it changed nothing.

Something similar seemed to have happened in the community of researchers whose work feeds into the IPCC.

‘You have to understand,’ someone told me, ‘there’s no precedent for the attempt to create a process by which the findings of science feed directly into political negotiations.’ The IPCC is an intergovernmental body: that’s literally what the ‘I’ in those initials stands for. The convention signed at the Earth Summit in 1992 which created the framework for negotiations, the COP meetings that come around each autumn, established the IPCC’s reports as the baseline for political decision-making.

I get the impression that many scientists were honestly unprepared for the lack of good faith on the political end of this process. There was a belief that, should they deliver a strong enough warning with a high enough level of certainty, action would follow. Gradually, this gave way to a new dismay at the brokenness of the system that was meant to translate evidence into action.

I don’t want to claim too much authority for the impressions I am reporting here. There’s nothing systematic about the conversations that led me to them. They are, in all senses of the word, anecdotal. But they point to a possibility which I find compelling: that the status which science is accorded is a sham. Let me say this clearly: the work of science is real, it is done with integrity, its findings deserve our attention. But the high status given to scientific knowledge, according to the story modern Western society tends to tell about itself, is an ideological facade. The figures in white coats are useful as long as they feed the ideological structure of industrial society – as long as their labs contribute to the GDP – but when their findings call the aims (or even the viability) of societies like these into question, their voices carry little more authority in the summit room than those of the protesters at the gates.

*   *   *

Strange things happened when our play was staged.

The theatre is set in the round, the actors sit on the front row, among the audience, at the four points of the compass. Sometimes they get up and walk through the space in the middle, mostly they speak from where they sit. The setting is never made explicit, but you can imagine that they are stuck in transit, waiting for a flight that has been indefinitely delayed by unseasonable weather, and so they get to talking. The monologues the four of us had written were woven together by a skilful dramaturge, so our researchers question each other, tell stories and compare notes. The play itself lasts three-quarters of an hour, but when it ends, everyone is still there, sitting around in those circles, and the audience is invited to join in a facilitated discussion.

The premiere took place with an invited audience, a mix of scientists and staff from the theatres involved in the project, part of a day-long event. There were laughs of recognition from the scientists, so we must have got something right, but unease among the others, and the discussion spilled on into the rest of the day. To come to a play about climate change and meet the scientists as human beings, struggling with the implications of the knowledge they produce, turns out to be an uncomfortable experience. ‘We want to be told what to do,’ I remember someone saying. ‘We want to be given answers.’

This pattern repeated itself on the tour that followed, as the production travelled to university towns, with public performances at night and daytime shows for academics and students. At one show I attended, an audience member insisted that he had recently watched a lecture by an economist explaining how we could solve climate change and why hadn’t we included someone like that? All I could say, because it was true, was that there had been no agenda behind the selection of the scientists we worked with; indeed, as writers, we had no involvement in that part of the process. If the characters we created were not literal portraits of our partners, they were based on their words. Thinking about the strength of his reaction, it struck me that what such audience members wanted from our scientists was not just to be told what to do, but to be told that everything will be OK.

Most of the theatre, fiction and cinema that gets made ‘about’ climate change fails. This is a massive generalisation and there are exceptions, but I think the failure is significant. I think it has things to tell us. A few years ago, I asked the theatre writer Maddy Costa about this, and the only exception she could think of was David Greig’s adaptation of The Lorax. I don’t say that our short play succeeded, I’m not sure the reactions were proof of that, but at the least we failed differently. We didn’t do the scene where the climate scientist stands in front of an audience and explains the science. We wanted to stage the quieter conversations that happen around the edges of a conference, the stories people tell when they are at ease, the thoughts they might not usually voice when there’s a microphone involved.

The commissioning of artistic work about climate change comes out of a recognition of the limits of scientific knowledge production, a sense that something else is needed, but such projects are mostly conceived as communications work. Artists are enlisted to help ‘deliver the message’ and ‘raise awareness’, as though art were a sophisticated extension of the PR department or a cheap alternative to an advertising agency. This is not only a misconception of what art is and what it’s good at, it’s also a misconception of the knowledge work that remains, when the scientists reach the end of their road. The work that remains is not a secondary task, a delivery mechanism for the payload of knowledge. Its scale is at least as great as the work that went before it, and its scope includes attending to the consequences of treating the world as if it could be held as arm’s length. I’ve come to think of it as the work of bringing the knowledge home.

*   *   *

Notes From Underground continues next Thursday, when I’ll have more to say about ‘bringing the knowledge home’ and what this work might mean in practice.

Comments (26)

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  1. James McCarthy says:

    I applaud the insightful article

    1. James McCarthy says:

      I applaud the insightful article by Dougald Hines. I have been involved in professional conservation overseas since the late 1950s and subsequently as a Director of the Nature Conservancy Council (subsequently SNH in Scotland). Many of the staff were well qualified scientists/ecologists who were often focussed on the protection of a limited area of special wildlife sites and species. But the organisation came under attack from politicians, landowners and farmers when it investigated the wider issues of detrimental land use including modern agriculture, forestry, and fish farming while its staff and funding have been severely cut back in recent years. The Flowe Country of Caithness and Sutherland is an outstanding example of how a very important area was eventually saved from destruction by commercial forestry at the eleventh hour, but primarily at the time for its unique assemblages of plants and birds – not its wider importance as a ‘carbon sink’, barely mentioned in the 1970s. While the protection of individual and limited wildlife sites has been at least partially accepted, if reluctantly, by government and politicians, the broader issues of climate change are still sidelined, witness the recent failure of international climate conferences.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I welcome this kind of art-science thought-provocation.

    However, I don’t think it helps to make a statement like “there is little in your training as a scientist or in the culture of science that is going to help” when scientists come face-to-face global environmental threats. Indeed, this is contradicted in the very next paragraph by Silent Spring, although the sense that Carson (while undergoing her own existential threat) was also taking on the scientific establishment is missing. Especially odd, since the Manhattan Project and all the science fiction that depicts science-based planetary catastrophes. I think there is no evidence for a modern scientific “loss of innocence”. Science fiction as an English-language literary genre may have started with a scientist ‘playing God’. British post-WW2 science fiction has envisaged many catastrophes brought about by applied science, and more from general scientific discovery (indeed, the early 1970s British science-fiction environmentalist show Doomwatch’s title makes that clear).

    The precautionary principle has been recognized by environmental authorities for at least several decades, but parables of genies in bottles have long served.

    Please do not steer people to the movie version of The Lorax when they should read Dr Seuss’ classic graphic novel/children’s/everyone’s story. The reason we need Green Authoritarianism (I believe) is poetically encapsulated in the position statement “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Our systems of government are humanistic, when we need to far expand governance into a role of environmental protection, health and biodiversity (as if we lived on a spaceship or planetary colony; more spiritualistic people than myself may talk of returning to the garden and a form of stewardship). We need (at the least) senators for trees and senators for cetaceans; in-built Parliamentary majorities for ecosystems with vetos for oceans and forests; we need ecocide law; we need science and citizenship to be at the heart of education systems so that people can make meaningful and responsible contributions; and we need the best checks on science so that we can make it the authoritative voice in our political systems (without creating another religion or priesthood or old boys’ network).

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      SleepingDog –

      Thanks for this. Good point about the resistance Carson encountered – and I find the conversations about what it would mean for the more-than-human world to be represented within democratic structures fascinating. Robin Wall Kimmerer has a lovely chapter that touches on this in Braiding Sweetgrass, a book in which she brings together two ways of knowing, one coming from her academic career as a professor of environmental and forest biology, the other as a member of the Citizen Potowatomi Nation.

      Perhaps I needed to be clearer about the distinction I made in the paragraph you quote from, because what I was trying to get at is also about the relationship between two ways of knowing. As you say, I’m clear enough in the essay about the role that science has to play in responding to the confrontation with global environmental threats. What I’m talking about in that passage, though, is the moment when something hits you viscerally, bodily, emotionally as well as intellectually – when it moves from arm’s-length knowledge that can be produced and shelved and referenced and used as the basis for strategies and all the rest, to an experience of knowing that unsettles you, that calls your sense of who you are into question. I’ll write more about this shift and why I think it matters in next week’s essay, but from my conversations with scientist friends, I’m pretty clear that this is a place where they are more aware than anyone that the power and competence of their training and culture reaches its limit, and my point in naming it is not to deny the role of science, but to identify where the other competences and powers might lie that can pick up where it runs out. More on that next Thursday!

      Meanwhile, to clear one thing up, Maddy Costa was referring to the 2015 theatre production of The Lorax (adapted by the wonderful Scottish playwright David Greig), and not the 2012 movie. But yes, everyone, go read the book itself!

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Dougald Hine, thanks for explanations, and apologies for my misunderstandings where I could have checked. My relatively-brief tertiary education exposure to science training and culture was unusual in that the Psychology department straddled both the Science and the Arts-and-Social-Science faculties. Our behaviourist-leaning lecturers gave the impression (as I recall) that behaviour modification was very real, although there was also a threat from bad science. I look forward to the exposition in your next essay. I am reminded that (according to Thomas S Kuhn anyway) scientists are mostly involved in ‘normal science’, where the work is regularised problem-solving and observation routine, and not one of the rare revolutions. Yet it seems that an incremental accumulation of data can cause a psychological shift at certain points too, like the unpredictable phase shifts in complex systems (perhaps conversion theory in psychology, which historically drew on examples of religious — that is, worldview — conversion).

  3. William Ross says:

    Dougald

    Sorry to be a gadfly but I would make a few points.

    I quote from your article: “In 1988, when the IPCC was set up, global warming was still seen as one among a number of potentially ominous threats; as the data came in and the models became more robust, its status was upgraded. If the grounds for alarm were growing, it’s also true that climate change – and the way that climate change is represented – was particularly amenable to quantitative evaluation. All the specific factors and local implications can be crunched into a global figure: the number of parts per million of CO2equivalent; the average temperature rise by 2100 as forecast by the models”

    I take it then that you have found a climate model that actually works in a forward-looking sense? Why have all climate models since 1988 failed so miserably? How do you account for the fact that the World has been steadily warming since the end of the Little Ice Age ( circa 1850 for argument) while CO2 emissons took off only after World War 2? You have a touchingly devout faith in a certain class of scientist. How many utterly embarrassing climate predictions have been made since 1988? ” All the specific factors and local implications can be crunched into a global figure”? Sheer nonsense.

    Another quote:” Let me say this clearly: the work of science is real, it is done with integrity, its findings deserve our attention. But the high status given to scientific knowledge, according to the story modern Western society tends to tell about itself, is an ideological facade.” You assume that science speaks with one voice and “your” scientists work with integrity. I have no doubt that they generally do work with integrity but remember that junior scientists often cannot get funding if they take a sceptical or questioning view of “settled” climate science. However, there are top scientists such as Judith Curry, William Nordhaus and Roger Pielke ( and many many others) who take an entirely different view, which I might call a “Lukewarmist” view. Do they not work with integrity? And are you really qualified to judge?

    Yet another quote:”I get the impression that many scientists were honestly unprepared for the lack of good faith on the political end of this process. There was a belief that, should they deliver a strong enough warning with a high enough level of certainty, action would follow. Gradually, this gave way to a new dismay at the brokenness of the system that was meant to translate evidence into action.”

    So your scientists, who work with integrity and know that Armageddon is upon us ( even though they cannot explain why temperatures were much warmer in the Early Medieval Warm Period), were shocked that there was no political answer to their findings? The interesting issue is that you yourself conceded in your last article that there is in fact no answer. There is no way that the World is rapidly moving away from fossil fuels when such fuels provide 85% of the World`s primary energy and there is no substitute. Did your scientists ever grapple with the consequences in terms of worldwide dictatorship, massive imposed starvation and political mayhem which would result in any short to medium term abandonment of fossil fuels?

    I am a lifelong oilman and am proud of powering the World.

    Regards

    William

    1. Wul says:

      “I…..am proud of powering the World.”

      Wow! That’s some boast. Couldn’t you have come up with something less deadly?

  4. William Ross says:

    Wul

    I am sorry that you did not like my boast, even though it is true. The oil industry powers the World, feeds the World ( through use of natural gas in fertilizers), clothes the World and does much much more.

    All you need to do to “de-fang” the “deadly” William Ross is to switch off your electricity now, for good, wear only woollen/cotton/linen clothes ( all organically produced naturally) and hire out a small allotment and grow your vegan food supplies. But Dougald is sensible enough to know that there is no “real answer”. I am waiting ………………..

    William

    1. Thanks to Overlords and Saviours: BP Shell and Exxon.

      I hope you don’t wake up too soon William, better to pass on in such blissful ignorance than have to face up to the tragedy you worship.

    2. john learmonth says:

      William,
      Don’t worry the current ‘climate crisis’ will soon go the way of the ‘global cooling scare’of the 1970’s.
      In the meantime thank you for providing the fossil fuels that make human life tenable in Scotland. Its currently -4c outside. The sun itsn’t shining nor the wind blowing and without fossil fuels we’d very quickly freeze to death.

      1. Hi John – has the entire global scientific consensus on the climate crisis passed you by?

        How is this possible?

        1. john learmonth says:

          Mike,

          Its not a consensus. I humbly suggest you read more widely on the subject rather than just dismiss people who disagree with you as ‘deniers’ in the pay of ‘big oil’.
          Just one example between 1940-75 global tempertures plummeted (despite ever increasing CO2 levels) which gave us the cooling scare of the time…i could go on.
          I’m sorry but i just don’t buy the concept that Co2 levels (0.04% of the atmosphere and 85% is from natural sources meaning humanity contibutes 0.01% at best) is the main driver of climate change. More than the sun/orbit of the earth?
          Sorry i just don’t buy it and if I’m wrong and the earth warms a bit i’m sure we’ll survive after all the planet has been considerably warmer than it is today for most of its history.

          Best regards

          John

          1. Oh god.
            I really don’t know what to do with this level of dangerous stupidity in 2020.

        2. john learmonth says:

          I’m sure the scientific consensus of C15 italy which held that the earth was flat had the same opinion of Galileo……stupid man.
          Science is not consensus.
          Patronising people gets you nowhere answering perfectly valid questions though takes time and thought not to mention evidence. Stick to the eminent ‘climate scientist’ George Monbiot (zoologist) or the BBC’s Roger Harribin (BA in English) although as they both went to prestigous public schools (not to mention oxbridge) us stupid plebs should be doffing our caps to them .

          1. Wul says:

            John:

            “…85% [of CO2] is from natural sources meaning humanity contibutes 0.01% at best…”

            I make that 15% from man-made sources, even using your own information? ( 85% + 15% = 100%)

            You seem to be saying; “small numbers don’t matter in science”. Am I understanding you correctly?

    3. Wul says:

      William,

      I don’t have a problem with you working in the Oil & Gas sector. Growing up in Scotland it’s hard not to know someone who works in O&G. Two of my best friends do.

      I reckon we are all complicit to some degree in our total reliance on oil. Most of us use it to get to our place of gainful employment after all.

      I think you are a wee bit deluded though regarding you status as a hero who “powers the World, feeds the World and clothes the World” Aren’t you just a guy who works in the oil industry and draws a wage, like many others?

      We discovered oil, discovered many uses for it and expanded our industries and populations exponentially as a result of it’s enormous energy density and ease of extraction. We then became fully dependant on it. That is not something to be proud of, either as a professional or as a member of the human race. It is a stupid position to be in. A “predicament” as Dougald Hine would have it.

      You shouldn’t take it personally if some of us worry about the effects of our our pumping 23 Gigatonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere every year for decades. It is wholly rational to be concerned about the long-term effects of climate change. No one is saying you are a bad person.

      PS: It is possible to eat meat without using oil. We managed it for tens of thousands of years and many peoples still do.

      1. john learmonth says:

        Yes they cook their meat on fires using wood/charcoal giving out far more Co2 than if they used oil/gas not to mention the lung diseases that ‘indigenous’ methods contribute to.
        You also need to double check your maths…..
        Sorry.

      2. john learmonth says:

        I missed out the massive de-forestation that our ‘indigenous’ peoples contributed to prior to the discovery of fossil fuels. The UK was covered in forest but the indigenous peoples chopped the lot down in order to provide them with heat and cooking fuel.

  5. William Ross says:

    John Learmonth:

    Thanks for your various posts supportive of climate realism.

    Mike:

    Thanks for your comments. In fact I do not worship fossil fuels. I actually regard them as unpleasant, smelly, toxic and dangerous, but they are also the only way we have to live modern civilization. I would love to find substitutes. I just do not know what they are. I personally believe that the Earth has been gently warming since the mid 19th century and I think that greenhouse gases are playing a role in this. A Question: is it Bella`s considered view that Dougald Hine is correct in arguing ( very honestly) that given the imminient end of human life as we know it, there is no “green answer”? That would be important to clarify.

    Wul

    I did not mean to suggest that I am a “hero”. William Ross is not a hero. After all I live a very comfortable life and no-one is threatening me in any way. I do not take things personally and I am actually very relaxed. However, I do have a hero: my father. He fought on the Arctic Convoys and was present at D- Day. For five years he faced down a power that would REALLY have ended civilization as we know it. That was a genuine “emergency”. You say that fossil fuels are a “predicament”. Well that means that your warm comfortable home is a “predicament”.

    William

    1. The best part of this post was “I personally believe”.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Editor, indeed, far beyond individualism there is an extreme-right (characteristically) form of ego-politics where the individual’s own personally accessible ‘truth’ is supposed to dominate and cow into submission the views of the collective or objective science. Is that the Ayn Rand position? Anyway, it is not restricted to torch-the-Earth enthusiasts.

        @William Ross, I find it really odd that you keep using the heat-your-own-homes use case for fossil fuels. If you have to use fossil fuels to heat your house, there is something wrong with the design or condition of your dwelling or your inefficient practice or range of technologies. What use would a coal fire in an igloo be? Insulation, passive heating and cooling, wearing season-appropriate clothing indoors is the efficient and effective approach, and beyond that renewable power. My central heating has come on (briefly) perhaps on two nights this winter, on a precautionary thermostat setting to avoid iced pipes. It may be that central heating has contributed to an obesity epidemic in the UK and elsewhere. And I remember in primary school the family of a classmate being wiped out by carbon monoxide poisoning. These carbon-deaths are too often accepted as “just the way things are” in our culture, when alternative approaches are safer and more rational. Middens and brochs; I am sure we can improve on stone-age dwelling technology.

  6. William Ross says:

    Sleeping Dog

    I am sorry to take some time to respond to your post.

    You obvoiusly do not follow my logic. There are very few igloos in Scotland and a coal fire would not be a good idea to heat one. In fact there are relatively few coal fires left in private houses in Scotland. The point is that without fossil fuels there would be no grid electric system as wind only works when it is windy and solar only works when it is sunny…….. What chemical base is your insulation material made off? And what chemical base are your clothes made from? And beyond heating, insulation cannot light your house or power your fridge. And how many billions of pounds will it cost to massively insulate every house in Scotland? Europe? The World? And what if people do not want to live in house-coats? The igloo is part of Eskimo Stone Age culture and to Stone Age culture we will return with Greta and her acolytes.

    I do not know where you latched onto Ayn Rand? I do not read her and dislike the summaries I read.

    William

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @William Ross, thank you for taking the time to reply. There are many ways to store excess power generation from wind, solar (which can be used for domestic water heating as well as electricity), tidal, wave sources and so on, including pumped-storage hydroelectricity. More will follow, if I understand the “smart grid” proposals. If igloos can provide sufficient domestic insulation without a fire in far colder conditions than Scotland experiences, why cannot our modern technology achieve better results? I am not sure where fossil fuels come into your ideas for insulation which essentially is about providing sealed air gaps, while measures like double-glazing and curtains are hardly high technology. How many pounds will it *save* to properly insulate Scottish homes? You make a decent point about hydrocarbon-based polymers in clothes, but that is not fossil fuel: you are not burning them. We are as wasteful and inefficient when it comes to clothing as we are with fuel: is that a culture you want to defend?

      You recommended the work of Alex Epstein (“The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”), who apparently worked at the Ayn Rand Institute between 2004 and 2011, according to Wikipedia:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Epstein_(American_writer)

  7. Dougald Hine says:

    Folks –

    A brief reply, as I’ve come back to discover the flurry of discussion under this post.

    If you are not convinced that climate change is a real threat, then this series is not going to convince you. I’m not a climate scientist and that is not my job. You can go on posting climate denial talking points, but I won’t waste time pretending to have a worthwhile discussion with you.

    For those who are willing to take the overwhelming scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change seriously, to take the IPCC’s findings as a baseline and to note the gap between what almost everyone who works with climate science says we should be doing and what we’re actually doing – well, I hope the series continues to help in the process of puzzling through what these means and what’s worth doing.

    Once again, arguments against the scientific consensus on climate change will be treated as off-topic from here onwards. My recommendation is you take them to one of the many places on the internet where this is the topic of debate. If they start to clutter up the discussion on this series to the exclusion of responses that actually engage with the substance of these essays, then Mike and I may need to discuss introducing a more active comment policy.

  8. Tim says:

    I’m sorry to bring up Latour again, Dougald, but I’m reminded of his Gifford Lectures from a few years back wherein he addresses head on the questions of politics in the age of faiths and hopes, and where scientists (specifically climatologists) sit in the milieu. Per Latour, everyone but a scientist says, “Maybe the world will disappear, but we have time.” Climatologists are accused by politicians and other scientists essentially of being a lobby, and they’re the only people who are truly afraid. Latour: “The people who are most worried about every new piece of data are the ones who are supposed to be the most disinterested and emotionless. It’s tragic.”

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