The Climate of Clive James

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.

“imminent catastrophe”

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).

“Awkwardly lingering”

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.


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8 responses to “The Climate of Clive James

  1. Ugh. Crudely didactic doggerel coupled with an even worse grasp of science from a man who appears to have spent his 76 years avoiding the topic. What a travesty.

    In contrast, some apt lines from a far better and shorter-lived poet:

    …Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.


  2. Actually, there seems to be a bit of a theme at the moment of people who are clearly very intelligent and well-informed, stepping out of their area of expertise and saying things that wrong. Neil deGrasse Tyson is another. Maybe it’s just impossible for intelligent people with a platform, to not eventually end up straying into areas in which they have no expertise and saying things that illustrate that we’re all susceptible to hubris.


  3. Magma – last time I looked, Clive James hadn’t put the poem on his site (maybe he is embarrassed by it?).

    And Then There’s Physics –

    We need interlocutors in this world. Journalists often perform this role, but wise ones bring in relevant scientists to help support their work. In the UK we are really not bad at this. On BBC Radio for example, a story on some new gene therapy story will generally involve a leading researcher in the field, to get a first hand view on the science. That does not mean there is not a role for the Neil deGrasse Tyson’s of this world, but the problem in the USA seems to be the news channels seem to use a small palette of people, who become ‘go to’ people, like ‘The Science Guy’, Bill Nye. We in UK do use high profile active scientists such as Brian Cox, Alice Roberts, Steve Jones, etc. but these are pretty careful not to present themselves as experts in areas outside their specialisms. Of course, no such self-constraints seem to apply to the commentators and self-appointed experts like Christopher Booker, et al., or the benighted interpreter of interpretations, James Delingpole


  4. And Then There’s Physics, people are allowed to make mistakes. If every public uttering of a scientist/science communicator/celebrity would need to be flawless, they would lose their right to free speech. I do would expect people not to keep on repeating mistakes once they are pointed out to them. And it would be nice if the listeners would be more realistic about the limits of expertise as well.


  5. Victor – it is a shame that the discussion can degenerate into exchanging ‘certainties’ (I am talking in general terms – not about you ATTP!). In teaching, the aim is to enable students to be able to ask questions, and exploring the unknown.

    The poisoning of the well of dialogue on climate by contrarians does at times lead to a reaction that focuses on what we know, and is sometimes reluctant to admit areas where there are uncertainties (e.g. how fast Antarctica will respond to AGW), due to a fear that contrarians will exploit these areas, and will then claim that therefore everything is uncertain.

    The solution is of course to distinguish between areas that are established, even textbook; those that are pretty clear and based on consensus; and finally, those that are areas at the fringe of knowledge, where a lot of advanced research is needed. Having an open dialogue about these distinctions brings an authenticity to the dialogue.


  6. I probably misinterpreted the comment of ATTP. I was immediately thinking of the stupid recent tweet of Neil deGrasse Tyson and then did not read carefully and thought ATTP talked about that.

    Now that I read it more carefully, it seems that he wants more people involved so that they really have expertise. I wonder if not having too much expertise is also sometimes an advantage; it makes it easier to see what you need to explain.


  7. Yes, I think that was ATTP’s point. My reply was that at least on the BBC, on most topics (climate change less so), they get a good mix of bringing in the expert – often an author a new paper – and people able to contextualise it for a general audience. It is not either / or, but both, that are needed in my view.


  8. John McKeon

    Having just now discovered Clive James’ poem about climate change, I am deeply disappointed in him. He is a denier of the most important issue facing us on a truly world scale – a shooter of the messenger.


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