Miliband: denialism profoundly dangerous

At risk of further accusation of being over-impressed by politicians’ words I welcome what Ed Miliband is reported as saying in today’s leading articlein the Observer. He declared a “battle” against the “siren voices” who denied global warming was real or caused by humans, or that there was a need to cut carbon emissions to tackle it.

His interview with the Observer is described as his first response to University of East Anglia scientists being accused of witholding information and to the IPCC Himalayan glacier error.  He said it would be wrong to use a mistake to somehow undermine the overwhelming picture that’s there.  He described in broad terms the basic physics and the observed effects that point to the existence of human-made climate change, pointing out that “that’s what the vast majority of scientists tell us”.  He cited the thousands of pages of evidence in the IPCC report and was adamant that the IPCC was on the right track.


The danger of climate scepticism was that it would undermine public support for unpopular decisions needed to curb carbon emissions, including the likelihood of higher energy bills for households, and issues such as the visual impact of wind turbines. Miliband is energy secretary as well as climate secretary.

“There are a whole variety of people who are sceptical, but who they are is less important than what they are saying, and what they are saying is profoundly dangerous… to take what the sceptics say seriously would be a profound risk.”

That strikes me as plain speaking from a politician.  It would surprise the New Zealand populace if s senior minister here spoke in such terms.

Miliband also went on to acknowledge the “disappointment” of Copenhagen, though noting that there were also achievements including the agreement by countries responsible for 80% of emissions to set domestic carbon targets by today. I liked what he added: “There’s a message for people who take these things seriously: don’t mourn, organise.” He has previously called for a Make Poverty History-style mass public campaign to pressure politicians into cutting emissions.

Meanwhile back here in New Zealand yesterday’s Herald provided an example of how readily wild accusations levelled at IPCC scientists can make it into the journalistic canon. I wrote a few days ago about the UK Sunday Times’ untruthful article on the IPCC and predicted it would be reported uncritically by other newspapers.  Right on cue a Herald writer, reporting on the NIWA decision to put its temperature data on the web, at the end of her report listed the Sunday Times article as one of three items under the heading “IPCC’s Intemperate Year in the Headlines”.

11 thoughts on “Miliband: denialism profoundly dangerous”

  1. Isn’t it interesting that Ed Miliband calls for a mass public campaign to pressure politicians into cutting emissions but votes against a motion calling on the Government to sign up to the goals of the 10:10 campaign. That’s what I call solidarity! Here’s another example where he was painted into a corner by Franny “Age of Stupid” Armstrong at the Hay Festival last year:

    Things really came alive though when Armstrong brought up the issue of flying. If aviation is to shoulder the level of cuts that the scientists say are necessary then flying would need to drop back to 1960s levels.

    "We’re talking about everybody in this room flying about once a decade. Then it would be back to being a magical experience – what’s wrong with that?" she said.

    You could see Miliband shudder as he pictured in his head the letters from angry constituents denied their annual break to the Costa Del Sol. "People have had opportunities to travel that their parents’ generation would not have dreamed of," he said, "I can’t honestly say that taking those opportunities away is necessarily the right thing to do."

    And Mr Miliband’s claims about "important achievements" in Copenhagen need to be reviewed in the light of a piece in today’s Guardian headed Global deal on climate change in 2010 ‘all but impossible which paints a very bleak picture for the prospect of an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions. This article gets to the crux of the matter when it says:

    Many countries insist that the world’s biggest cumulative polluter must enact real emissions cuts. "We need a legally binding commitment from the US. I think this is fundamental," said Suzana Kahn of Brazil. But even after a defiant state of the union speech from Barack Obama last week, most experts think economic fears and the shadow of mid-term elections will scare enough Capitol Hill politicians to make passing a strong – and therefore unpopular – bill near-impossible.

    Politicians like to grandstand on these issues of principle but when it comes to the realpolitik of getting re-elected they are unwilling to take steps that might result in their electors having less stuff. Perhaps you could have a go at explaining why there is so much opposition to the science on subjects like climate change and evolution, when the evidence for the scientific conclusions they reach is so clearly documented.

  2. Le Chat Noir,
    “Perhaps you could have a go at explaining why there is so much opposition to the science on subjects like climate change and evolution, when the evidence for the scientific conclusions they reach is so clearly documented.”

    I can only surmise why there is so much opposition to the science. I don’t share it and can’t say I understand it. I’m not a scientist, but ordinary intellectual respect requires me to take such widely supported science seriously. Evidently that is not the case with some. And I’m unrepentant in welcoming Milband’s warnings about denialism, however much his political practice may fall short.

  3. That Guardian piece that Le Chat Noir linked to was very interesting.

    It seems a big problem that needs to be overcome is China’s reluctance to deal with this issue.

    What strategies do Climate Change activists have in dealing with this? The sort of a ‘Make Poverty History-style mass public campaign to pressure politicians’ that Miliband suggests tend to be frowned upon and actively ‘discouraged’ by the Chinese Communist Party.

  4. From my point of view there seemd to be a fundamental problem for those advocating rapid action on Climate Change in articulating what this actually means and how it can be achieved through the various political and economic processes.

    Of course there is all this legalistic discussion about binding targets of emissions cuts needing to be at this or that percentage and high-minded talk of moving to a low Carbon future (whatever that actually means).

    I would like to see someone explain exactly what a Climate Change friendly society really means. For example would people likely be using aeroplanes to travel around the world as often as they now do?

    I would also like to know what mechanism Climate Change campaingners believe will be successful in achieving the sort of world wide agreement necessary given the fact that Copenhagen has shown how the current approach is unworkable and mass movement local action won’t really work in places like China anytime soon.

  5. Unfortunately, I suspect that the necessary level of agreement and real action – as opposed to greenwash – will not come until the US and China experience major disasters which directly impact the economic interests of the ruling elites in both countries.

    The inundation of Miami and Shanghai might just do it, but many millions will have already died in the undeveloped world by then.

    1. I agree that it may take a protracted series of climate catastrophes to change the majority attitudes in many "developed" countries where the cults of "growth" and "individualism" have predominated now for three or four generations. The "I’m right, you’re wrong, eat that" rhetoric that dominates the comments section of this blog will certainly not change anyone’s mind and serves only to harden entrenched positions. You may find this article by Matthew Taylor interesting as it provides an alternative to the binary, tit for tat approach favoured here. More info here if that piques your interest.

  6. Gosman, I don’t think we should assume that China is not going to tackle the issue. The messages are mixed – their investment in cleaner energy is seemingly growing by leaps and bounds, as reported in this New York Times article for instance.

    I don’t think we know in detail what a climate change friendly economy will look like. Nor do we need to at this stage. What needs to happen is for carbon to be made as expensive in monetary price as it is in the damage it is doing to our future. That, plus perhaps some regulation as necessary, will direct creative technological drive to alternative energy development. Precisely where that will take us remains to be seen, but there is plenty of evidence that we can make a decarbonised economy work. We would in any case have to some time in the future even if we could safely go on burning fossil fuels, since they are a finite resource. Activist energy is best directed at emphasising the urgent seriousness of global warming, opposing “siren voices” and insisting that governments do what they need to do to price fossil fuel energy out of the market, whether by cap and trade or taxation or both. I hope it won’t take major disaster to achieve a turnaround, but Rob’s fears may be justified.

  7. Gosman – There are of course many different strategies being proposed by different ‘Climate Change activists’.

    As far as China is concerned, I know several people who have decided to avoid ‘made in china’ products as much as possible. You could do worse than to campaign for better ‘country of origin’ or ‘carbon footprint’ labelling on products. So even if ‘mass movement local action’ won’t work in places like China, the effects of mass movement action in the West may well impact on China.

    As far as post-Compenhagen ‘mechanisms’, my guess is that ‘world wide agreement’ isn’t actually necessary – a handful of countries emit the vast majority of GHGs and even if only some of them undertook strong action to reduce emissions, there would quickly be immense pressure on others to go along. Any kind of politics that leads to a carbon price in one country (eg in the US) will have to restrict ‘freeloading’ by others. Call it a carbon tariff or whatever sounds good, but that is the alternative to the Copenhagen style ‘global agreement’ mechanism.

  8. Gosman,

    China has been gradually improving their efficiency of energy use to create gross domestic product and, whilst their offer to continue to improve energy efficiency appears to be tokenism, it’s important to realise that major infrastructural changes would be required for China to achieve their projected reductions.

    China may emit more pollutants more than they do now, but they will be producing items far more efficiently than others can, and it’s also very likely they will continues to reduce emissions with time and technology, for reasons such as reduced local pollution.

    What China are offering would be a major improvement over existing practices, whilst still building their economy, just like NZ plans to.
    It was too easy for other participants at Copenhagen to make China the villain, because they were a convenient scapegoat.

    Consider national primary energy use in 1000BTU / GDP ( corrected to US$ in 2000 ) for 1980, 1993, and 2006…
    China = 37.3, 19.5, 13 ;
    USA = 15.1, 11.6, 8.8 ;
    NZ = 11.0, 12.3, 9.0 .
    Who’s making substantial progress?

    With regard to “a climate change friendly society”, it would first and foremost, be a prudent and efficient user of renewable and limited resources with a stable population size. Prudent use may involve international electronic communication rather than visiting – depending on distance and transport type. Efficient use may involve public transport, light vehicles, sustainable agriculture, etc etc.

    If we start thinking about options, individuals may justify making changes now – we don’t have to have global unanimity before we start.

    Some of us may move to a lighter, energy-efficient vehicle when buying our next car, but others will not change until a plug-in EV out-accelerates their Ford or Holden V8 at the traffic lights. Humanity is diverse, and people will change habits at differing rates.

    Global change will occur and, at the national level, competitive advantage will be a major driver, such as for China with their continuing drive to use energy more efficiently to create wealth – something that usually happens with most developing economies.

    The mechanism of global change?. Simple really, common sense. If we can make desirable changes cost effective and convenient, they will happen. If we can also make them fashionable, they will happen faster 🙂 .

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