Clive James is known as a man of letters and, in the UK at least, as an erudite and witty commentator on culture, for which he is widely respected. He has also been extremely courageous in sharing his thoughts on his terminal cancer, with his customary wit and flair.
For all these reasons it is sad that he has decided to become embroiled in climate change in the way he has. For sure he has the right to an opinion, but he seems to have muddied the art he loves, with the science that he clearly does not, and the result will satisfy neither discipline.
For those in broadcasting and the media, paid to express a view on anything and everything, it must be easy to develop a self assurance that belies any lack of knowledge. We are now resigned to the almost daily stream of nonsense that those such as Melanie Philips and others produce, given free rein to fulminate in the press.
Clive James’s poem “Imminent Catastrophe” was published in the New Statesman, and discussed in an article by Kaya Burgess in The Times, 17 March 2016 is barely more subtle, even shrouded as it is in the form of a poem.
The poem reveals more about Clive James’ self-declared ignorance on climate change than it does about the scientists, and if there is a metre absent then it is surely in his poetry, not the predicted sea level rise.
Let’s unpick the poem.
No self-respecting climate scientists has ever talked about “imminent” catastrophe. The timescales vary greatly depending on the impacts in question. Yes, there is a strong argument about how fast we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, in order to avoid the medium to long term consequences. But that is a distinction lost on CJ.
“Not showing any signs of happening”
There are many signs and CJ must either be too lazy or too blinkered to find out about them. The receding mountain glaciers are not imminent, they are already well on their way, and there are many other signs, as illustrated in NASA’s ‘Vital Signs’.
“The ice at the North Pole should have gone”
A typical exaggerated straw-man statement, rather than an accurate reflection of the scientific position. The clear evidence is that the minimum in sea ice is on a downward trend. “The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century”, says NASA (see Vital Signs above).
Yes it is … rather like those discredited contrarian memes, that CJ slavishly trots out. Not much creativity at work here I am afraid on his part.
“It seems no more than when we were young”
CJ’s anecdotal personal experience is worthless, like those who claim that smoking is safe because granny smoked 20 a day and lived to 90, so it must be ok. The disrupted weather systems are already bringing extremes in terms of both wetter winters and hot summers, depending on the region. While ‘attribution’ can get us into the difficult area of probabilities, the dice is already slightly loaded towards more extreme weather, and the loading will increase as the world warms. The National Academy of Sciences have just reported on this (But once again, I am sure that CJ will not want his opinion to be confused by facts).
“Continuing to not go up by much”
Well, CJ might not be impressed by the sea level rise so far, but the projected sea level rise is expected to be up to 1 metre by the end of the century, which would have a devastating impact on many countries and many cities situated near sea level. The long term picture, over millennia, offers little solace because of the long time it takes for elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere.
“sure collapse of the alarmist view”
A word of caution here from CJ regarding the sceptics’ who “lapse into oratory”, but he clearly shares the belief that those who warn of serious impacts of global warming should be labelled alarmist, while at the same time being affronted at the label denialist. Sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.
He lazily conflates the science with those that who at first sight may easily be cast in the mould of alarmist: those dreaded environmentalists. Let us assume for arguments sake that some of who he objects to are shrill alarmists. Does that have any bearing on the veracity of the science? Of course not, yet he applies his broad brush to tar anyone who might dare raise a concern.
Scientists for their part are often a rather quiet and thoughtful bunch. They often take years before publishing results, so they can check and re-check. But what are they to do about global warming? Keep quiet and they could be criticised for not raising the alarm; yet if they tell us about the worst prognostications in the calmest of voices, they will surely be accused of alarmism. A no-win situation.
It is rather easy for those like CJ, whose opinions are unencumbered by knowledge, to discount thousands of diligent scientists with an insulting and pejorative label.
“His death … motivates the doomsday fantasist”
Scientists such as Sagan have demonstrated a far less parochial view of the future than CJ. Boltzmann foresaw the heat death of the universe and scientists routinely remind us of what tiny specks we humans are in the universe. It is CJ not they that need reminding of how insignificant we all are.
Scientists show an amazing ability to have both a deep knowledge which challenges our deepest assumptions of the world, and a positive attitude to humanity. A combination of realism and optimism that is often inspiring.
The real fantasists here are those like CJ who imagine that they can stand judgment on 200 years of cumulative scientific knowledge, by rubbishing all those men and women who have established the understanding we now have, including the scientific evidence for global warming resulting from human activities that is now incontrovertible.
It is sad that someone who knows and loves poetry should decide to adulterate his art with this hatchet job on another discipline, science, for which he has little empathy and even less knowledge, but feels qualified to insult with the poetic equivalent of a latter day Margarita Pracatan.
Entertaining for some no doubt, but a rather sad reflection on CJ. He could have used a poem to provide a truly reflective and transcendent piece on the subject of climate change, but instead merely offered an opinion piece masquerading as art, clouded by contrarian myths.
We still love you Clive, but I really hope this poem is not your last.
(c) Richard Erskine, 2016
Note: If readers would like a presentation of a golden thread through the science, in plain English, then my essay Demystifying Global Warming & Its Implications aims to provide just that.