I’ve long intended writing a piece with the provocative title of “the Nazi Thing” on the puzzling question of what it is about the climate debate which makes people on both sides resort to using language like “denier,” “death trains” on the one hand, and “eco-fascism” on the other, when it’s so obviously counterproductive. An example of an own goal from the sceptic side was this article by Tim Ball in which he talked about “the Big Lie”, which angered Professor Richard Betts, one of the few professional climate scientists who will talk to us, who responded with this.
I dropped the idea and took it up again when I came across a rather different and particularly bizarre example a year ago of the conflation of two subjects. It’s contained in two articles in the Guardian, the first being a review of “Black Earth” by Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, and the second a long article by Professor Snyder concentrating on the conclusion of his book entitled “Hitler’s World May Not Be So Far Away.”
The review summarises fairly Snyder’s original (to me) view of the Holocaust as being a result not so much, or not only, of a ruthlessly efficient state killing machine, but also, and necessarily, of the prior destruction of all state and social institutions in the countries in which the killing took place. Note that Professor Snyder does not deny any of the accepted facts about the Nazi killing machine, but points out that our Western view of the Holocaust, largely formed by accounts of the Nuremberg trials and Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial, tends to ignore an important part of the evidence.
After several hundred dense and carefully annotated pages of analysis of the Holocaust, Professor Snyder adds a chapter entitled “Conclusion: Our World” which is an equally dense analysis of the present, and a series of predictions. The Guardian review summarises it thus:
This is not a comprehensive history of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, therefore, but a book with a thesis: and it is here that it really goes off the rails. In his concluding chapter, Snyder describes the Holocaust as an act of “ecological panic” […] In the 21st century, he speculates, rapid and destructive climate change could lead to wholesale food shortages caused by desertification of huge areas of the planet, or alternatively drastic economic collapse and state bankruptcies. The consequences of the destruction of the state, so obvious in eastern Europe between the wars, can now be seen in Iraq and Syria. Territorial conquest and exterminatory wars might occur with increasing frequency as the condition of the Earth deteriorates. China might invade Africa. Russia has already invaded Ukraine, mindful, as Hitler was, of its rich agricultural resources […] American evangelical Christians decry the work of scientists. Climate change, they say, is a myth, designed like so much else to give the state greater powers.[…] Such proposals seem reasonable enough, but do they really constitute lessons we should all learn from the Holocaust? […]His speculations about possible Chinese or Russian wars of conquest driven by the need for resources are wild in the extreme. This is a pity: much of this book makes for compelling and convincing reading, but tying historical arguments to ecological nostrums in this way does not really work.
I’ve been reading the book, in particular the final chapter, in which he links the lessons of the Holocaust to climate change. As a serious historian, he meticulously references his statements. Below I quote the major claims in his final chapter, and give his references. Note that the quotes are in fact my translations from the French edition (sometimes they correspond to whole paragraphs in his Guardian article, so they seem to be not too far off the original.)
[Please note: This article is about his scholarly treatment of climate change and his use of supporting reference, NOT about his thesis on the Holocaust. Comments will be moderated in accordance with my own desire to keep the discussion to the former subject]
The green revolution, possibly the only change which distinguishes our world from that of Hitler, may well have reached its limits. It’s not so much that there are too many people, but that this growing population demands ever more abundant and reliable food supplies. World production of cereals per head reached its peak in the eighties. In 2003 China, the world’s most populated country, became a net importer.
The reference for this last statement is:
Aliyu: “Agricultural development and “land grabs”: The Chinese Presence in the African Agricultural Sector”: Consultancy African Intelligence, 2012
Then follows a mention of the riots caused by food price rises in eleven countries in 2008 and 2010, referenced to
Moyo: “Winner takes all, China’s race for resources and what it means for the world”, 2012.
The civil war in Syria began after four consecutive years of drought forced the farmers into overpopulated towns. Indirectly, and along with other causes, climate change is provoking violence and South-North migration, reinforcing the far right and challenging the movement towards European integration. [no reference].
There follows a page and a half on Hitler and Lebensraum and the current fashion for post-catastrophic thinking in popular culture. Then:
The planet is changing in a way that could render more plausible the Hitlerian view of life, space and time. The predicted rise in average global temperatures of 4°C in the course of this century would transform human life over a major part of the planet. Climate change is unpredictable, which only worsens the problem. Present tendencies might mislead us as to the possible retroactive effects to come. If the icecap melts, the sun’s heat will be absorbed by seawater rather than being reflected back into space. If the Siberian tundra melts, the methane released will trap heat in the atmosphere. If the jungle disappears from the Amazon basin, it will release a huge quantity of CO2.
References for this are, on causality:
Maslin, Mark: “Global Warming. A very short introduction” OUP 2004
On Temperatures and causality:
Alexander, L.V. et al “Global observed changes in daily climate extremes of temperature and precipitation” Journal of Geophysical Research, 2006
Rohde, R. et al: “A new estimate of the average earth surface land temperature spanning 1753 to 2011”, Manuscript: text presented at the 3rd Santa Fe conference on global and regional climate temperature change, 2011
Zhang, Xuebin et al., “Detection of human influence on twentieth century precipitation trends”, Nature 2007
On predictions being too optimistic:
Rahmstorf et al., “Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011”, Environmental Research Letters, 2012
The Economist 22/9/12, “Arctic Ice: Now You Don’t: Summer Ice in the Arctic Ocean is vanishing rapidly”
The Guardian 27/11/12 [no reference, but probably this one by Fiona Harvey about methane]
On non-linear effects:
Mitchell, J.F.B. et al “Extreme events due to human induced climate change”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2006
Latif & Keenlyside, “El Nino / Southern Oscillation response to climate warming”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 2009
There follow 15 pages of discussion of contemporary global politics covering Rwanda, Ukraine and a dozen other topics culminating in a discussion of the origins of Likud among the Jewish emigrés from Poland, where an anti-semitic Polish government in the thirties encouraged Zionism as a way of getting rid of its Jewish population. Then:
The US today resembles Poland in the thirties in the sense that there are more Christians than Jews who support actively the Zionist ideal. [no reference] Certain American political allies of Israel, like the Evangelical Christians, tend to deny the reality of climate change while supporting the fossil fuel policy which gives rise to it. Among these are millions of Evangelicals known as Dispensationalists who support Israel because they believe that disasters which happen in that country will announce the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Reference: Smith & Leiserowitz: “American Evangelicals and Climate change” Global Environmental Change, read in manuscript, 2013; and Leiserowitz, personal communication
There follows an interesting analysis of the American view of the Holocaust:
Americans, when they think of the Holocaust, take it as read that they could never experience such horrors… The historical reality is a bit more complicated. Racial segregation was the rule in the troops which Roosevelt sent to liberate Europe. At the time anti-semitism was rife in the US. The Holocaust was almost over when the American troops landed in Normandy. While they liberated certain concentration camps, they never came across any of the major extermination sites or saw the thousands of mass graves in the East…
A misunderstanding of the link between the authority of the State and mass slaughter underlies an American myth of the Holocaust which is dominant at the beginning of the 21st century: that the USA deliberately saved people from genocide enacted by arrogant states. According to this reasoning, the destruction of a state could be associated with salvation rather than risk. Certainly, in 1945 the US contributed to the destruction of the regimes in Germany and Japan, but they then went about reconstructing state structures.
There follows a critique of US policy in Iraq and of the analyses of the Frankfurt school of philosophy and social science (Adorno and Horkheimer) and of the Viennese School ( von Hayek):
Adorno and Horkheimer, in their influential “Dialectic of Reason”, start (like Hitler) from the idea that “bourgeois civilisation” is on the point of collapse. They reduce the scientific method to a question of practical domination, without understanding (again, like Hitler) the reflexive and unpredictable nature of scientific investigation.
The disciples of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek hold that an overblown welfare state leads to national socialism, and therefore prescribe deregulation and privatisation as a remedy for all political ills. Though handy, this account is historically indefensible. There has never been a democratic state which has constructed a system of social welfare and then succumbed to fascism (or communism)… In an extreme version of market utopianism (which Hayek himself opposed) the Vienna School merges with the thinking of Ayn Rand; competition represents the very meaning of life. Hitler thought the same thing.
His critique of Hayek and defence of state intervention to correct the extremes of unbridled capitialism ends thus:
In practice, societies bent on profit engender exterior costs to which they have no solution. The classic example of this externality is pollution, which costs nothing to the polluters but is harmful to others.
And the references for this are:
Powell, James: The Inquisition of Climate Science 2011
Oreskes & Conway: Merchants of Doubt, 2010
Farley, John W., “Petroleum and Propaganda: The anatomy of the global warming denial industry”, Monthly Review, 2012
Union of Concerned Scientists: “Got Science? Not at News Corporation” 18/10/2012
Weart, Spencer, “Global Warming: how Skepticism became Denial”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2011
Though the science of climate change is clear, certain American conservatives deny the validity of the science and describe its conclusions as a political scam, a confusion of science and politics which could prove very dangerous…No American would deny the science of ballistics, but some deny climate science. Hitler denied that science could solve the fundamental problem of nutrition, but supposed that technology would enable him to conquer territory. It followed that relying on research was absurd, and immediate military action was the answer. In the case of climate change, the denial of science similarly lends legitimacy to military action rather than investment in technology. If people don’t assume for themselves the responsibility for climate change, they will blame others for the ensuing calamities. Insofar as climate denialism obstructs technological progress, it may provoke veritable disasters, susceptible in its turn of rendering catastrophic predictions more credible.Thus a vicious circle may develop, in which politics collapses into ecological panic.
Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925-26
Thomä, ”Sein und Zeit im Rückblick: Heideggers Selbstkritik”, 2001
Genette, Gérard, Figures I, 1966
Robbe Grillet, Alain, Pour un nouveau roman, 1963
The footnote which gives these references is followed by:
“The denial of climate science poses serious problems for the US Navy; confronted with the probable flooding of its bases and the reality of competition for the Arctic.
And that’s it. Here are a few brief footnotes to Snyder’s footnotes.
1) His first and apparently principal source of information (referenced twice) is Maslin, Mark: “Global Warming. A very short introduction”, a kind of “Climate Change for Dummies” published in OUP’s series of very short introductions. We know Maslin. He’s a frequent contributor to the Conversation, for instance here where, under a picture of camels in the snow, Mark entirely failed to persuade Paul and me that scientists know much at all, and he and his editor Willy de Freitas agreed that censorship was not the way forward, shortly before banning me. And at “Why I’ll talk Politics with Climate Change Deniers but not Science” where Paul, Barry, Foxgoose, Rog Tallbloke and I tried unsuccessfully to get him to talk to us about politics or anything else.
2) The only other general survey of climate science cited is “Powell, James: The Inquisition of Climate Science 2011.” From Amazon’s summary:
Modern science is under the greatest and most successful attack in recent history. An industry of denial, abetted by news media and “info-tainment” broadcasters more interested in selling controversy than presenting facts, has duped half the American public into rejecting the facts of climate science―an overwhelming body of rigorously vetted scientific evidence showing that human-caused, carbon-based emissions are linked to warming the Earth. The industry of climate science denial is succeeding: public acceptance has declined even as the scientific evidence for global warming has increased. It is vital that the public understand how anti-science ideologues, pseudo-scientists, and non-scientists have bamboozled them. We cannot afford to get global warming wrong―yet we are, thanks to deniers and their methods.
3) Two of his citations (Rohde, Leiserowitz) are from unpublished manuscripts, i.e. stuff his friends told him. One of them is in support of Snyder’s apparent belief that millions of Americans are looking forward to the destruction of Israel.
4) Some of his citations seem to bear no relation to the subject they are supposed to support. For instance: in support of “temperatures and causality” he cites a paper by Zhang et al on “Detection of human influence on twentieth century precipitation trends”.
But the worst example is the final paragraph quoted, in which his prediction that:
“…climate denialism …may provoke veritable disasters, susceptible in its turn of rendering catastrophic predictions more credible. Thus a vicious circle may develop, in which politics collapses into ecological panic”
is supported by references to Mein Kampf; a critique of Heidegger’s self criticism; a series of essays by a French narratologist; and an essay on the French “new novel” by a French author of new novels. This barrage of references from the outer reaches of European philosophy is immediately followed by an unsupported claim that the US Navy fears that their bases will be submerged.
5) His important point on the externalisation of the costs of pollution – a key criticism of unbridled capitalism – is supported with reference to a number of weirdo conspiracy theorists (Oreskes, Spencer Weart etc.)
Snyder is a highly respected academic working in a field far from climatology. In his own field of the history of the Holocaust he demonstrates all the qualities we expect from a reputed academic, supporting his theses with references to the best authorities. But when he proposes links between his own historical field and that of climate science he drops all scholarly standards and quotes any old conference paper or telephone conversation he feels like; mad activists and conspiracy theorists like Oreskes and Powell; or Mark Maslin, a professor-cum-company director who combines his job at my old university as palaeontologist or geographer or climatologist (all descriptions of his expertise taken from “the Conversation”) with that of director of Rezatec Ltd, a company set up by the Royal Society as a “Leading provider of data-as-a-service geospatial data analytics” to serve those who may be worried to death by forecasts of eco-doom to be found in the books and articles of Mark Maslin.
The more Maslin cries “we’re doomed” at the Conversation, or in his teeny weeny dummies’ rough guide at Oxford University Press, the more the world’s deciders are likely to decide that they need the services of a leading provider of data-as-a-service geospatial data analytics. And the more Maslin, director of the leading provider of data-as-a-service geospatial data analytics, is cited in a major historical work on the murder of tens of millions, the better it is for him and his fellow venture capitalists at the Royal Society.
Win-win, or what?
As I said above, This article is NOT about the Holocaust, or Snyder’s interpretation of it. It’s about the use of evidence, in the form of references, and by extension of the trust we can place in academics who stray outside their chosen field. I may moderate comments here, depending on how I feel. I would like to pass this post on to Professor Snyder, so I want it to look as if it’s read by normal human beings.