From the Loyalist blog It's Still Only Thursday, a third piece in a series looking at 'legitimate targets' during the North's politically violent conflict.

For an overview of the ‘Killing by Numbers’ series, please see Part 1.


The ‘Official IRA’

In early 1970, the organisation which styled itself as the ‘Irish Republican Army’ broke into two acrimonious factions- the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA.

The Officials, or ‘Stickies’ as they became known, had in fact a greater claim to be the ‘inheritors‘ of the title of ‘IRA’, since they retained as members most of those who had been active during the abortive ‘Border Campaign’ (Operation Harvest) of 1956-62.

Under their Dublin based leadership, the Officials adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology, through which they sought to unify the working classes of Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, overthrow the state of Northern Ireland (and the Irish Republic) and thereafter establish a unified, 32 county communist state.

Because of their doctrinaire Marxism and their stated aim of unifying the working class, the Official IRA are widely regarded as being much less sectarian and markedly more cautious than either their Provisional IRA rivals or the splinter groups (INLA/IRSP and IPLO) which would later emerge from within the ‘Stickies’ own ranks.

This is somewhat borne out by the statistics, however, those statistics are skewed by the fact that the Official IRA largely abandoned violence in 1973/74 and thereafter engaged in violence only sporadically.

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Killing by Numbers ➤ Part 3

A Morning Thought @ 667

Christine Miller  answers 13 questions in a Booker's Dozen.

TPQ: What are you currently reading?

CM: All That Remains by Sue Black.

TPQ: Best book you have ever read?

CM: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. 

TPQ: First book to really own you? 

CM: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

TPQ: A must read before you die?

CM: Ulysses by James Joyce.

TPQ: A preference for fact or fiction?

CM: Impossible to choose.

TPQ: Favourite male and female author?

CM: Edgar Allan Poe and Charlotte Bronte.

A Berlin Book Tower in memory of the Nazi book burning.

TPQ: Book most cherished as a child?

CM: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.

TPQ: Favourite childhood author?

CM: JK. Rowling.

TPQ: Any book you point blank refuse to read?

CM: Fifty Shades of Shite Grey

TPQ: Any author you point blank refuse to read?

CM: Jeffrey Archer and J.R.R. Tolkien.

TPQ: Pick a book to give to somebody so that they would more fully understand you.

CM: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

TPQ: Last book you gave as a present? 

CM: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

TPQ: Book you would most like to see turned into a movie?

CM: The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. 

Christine Miller is a professional procrastinator based in the West of Scotland who loves nothing more than a decent book. In her spare time she is Editorial Assistant and Writer for

Booker's Dozen @ Christine Miller

Caoimhin O’Muraile reviews a book by a British agent who worked within Sinn Fein. 

I chanced to pick up a copy of The Irish News Friday 4th October 2019 and was intrigued by the headline; which read: “INLA bomber set up for arrest by Provisional IRA says top MI5 agent”. As a former member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) I ventured to read further. It turns out that Carlin, if all is to be believed, had been working for MI5 and later the FRU (Force Research Unit) inside Sinn Fein giving detailed reports on any political developments inside the party. 

Carlin has written a book, Thatcher’s Spy: My Life as an MI5 Agent Inside Sinn Fein which I decided to read for myself rather than just the extracts in the paper. The book gives details about Carlin as a child, born into a devout Catholic family in Derry, 30 July 1948, who contemplated joining the priesthood at one stage. Instead, he enlisted in the British Army, The Queens Royal Irish Hussars, with whom he spent some time in Germany as part of the British Army’s NATO commitment. 

I got the impression Carlin was either a liar, which I dismissed, a fantasiser or a terrible man for the propaganda. I came to the conclusion that he was a propagandist and a man perhaps prone to fantasising a little. He was not a liar because even propaganda of the worst type has to have a seed of truth to build the rest on, even if the rest is make-believe. The fact that the foundations are factual rules out Carlin being a compulsive liar. I did get the impression he considered himself far more important than he perhaps actually was. The way he portrays himself he was on first name terms with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; a woman even her husband was probably not on first name terms with! 

There is no doubt at all Carlin served with the army in Germany but his recollection of an event which occurred while he was there would have us believing he alone prevented a third world war! He recalls being on duty along the River Elbe which formed the border, or frontier, between the former Soviet led Warsaw Pact territories and those of NATO. Apparently, a former GDR (East Germany) Navy vessel, Volksmarine, came alongside on the NATO bank of the Elbe. The captain had lost control of the ship to his crew – something unlikely if all the horror stories about the Warsaw Pact are to be believed – and the British Army were on full alert. Eventually the ship was taken, by who is not mentioned, given back to the Captain and the vessel left the NATO bank back into Soviet controlled waters. The question I ask is this; why would a GDR naval craft, unless seeking political asylum, come over to the western side asking assistance to retake the ship from the crew, who had set out a number of demands, unspecified, threatening to blow the ship up if their demands were not met, what did they think the West could do? Why would the West care if they blew up their own ship? As they were obviously not asking for asylum, why then was the ship not captured, checked out for spying equipment, the crew interrogated and kept prisoner for future use? Fishing trawlers came under more scrutiny than this Man O War from the GDR received! 

I believe an incident did occur alright but whether it was of the severity Carlin would have us believe is open to question. Once the ship had been returned to the Captain it was free to sail back to its own shore unmolested. The British Army, including Carlin, was stood down and world war three averted! This was very early on in the book and had no relevance to the six counties or Derry, but it did suggest to me perhaps this master spy of Margaret Thatcher’s was possibly exaggerating the incident in Germany. 

How many more exaggerations would crop up? Without delving into British Military documents, it is not possible to say with any certainty what exactly happened but during the Cold War, incidents did happen but usually kept top secret. Were we close to a third world war? In Carlin’s own words, “if we open fire on this ship, we could start World War Three” would suggest we were if his recollection of events are factual. Carlin then tells us how: “back in the squad room we were hailed as heroes and the Colonel himself came from headquarters to congratulate us personally”. This gives the impression the Colonel regarded these men of such importance he considered them worth leaving his large Scotch in the Officers Mess to congratulate them on fulfilling a task putting the Cuban Missile Crisis into the shadow!

The book reveals there is no doubt Willie Carlin was of importance to the British, handing over political information about Sinn Fein. The problem I have here is that in the early to mid-seventies Sinn Fein were a microcosm of what they are today. The only politics in the North of Ireland was the gun at that time, unless Adams and McGuinness were working for the crown from an early period, which is hard to believe. Some suggest they were all along, others imply they did so at a later date while more say never at all. It is not my intention to pass any opinion as to numerous claims and counterclaims validity regarding the authenticity of the Adams/McGuinness axis. The Sinn Fein political adventure had not really started so what information could Carlin hand over? Unless the British knew at this early stage the direction, they were trying to push the Provisional movement? 

So, the question is, how important at that stage was Carlin? It has been broadly reported the British would often sacrifice life to protect an agent, as Martin Ingram – according to Carlin real name Ian Hurst – graphically details in his book written jointly with Gregg Harkin, Stakeknife. What strikes me is why would a man from Derry, from a devout Catholic family join the armed forces of a country’s government which had, for fifty years propped up a regime which openly discriminated against Roman Catholics in the North of Ireland? Then, on leaving the army, goes on to work for MI5 against the very organisation which, no matter what they may have done since, stopped the pogroms against his co-religionists in Belfast. By this I refer to the Provisional IRA defence of the isolated nationalist area of East Belfast, Short Strand and the stopping of loyalist and B Special attacks on Bombay Street at the Falls, Shankill interface to name two occurrences. Also, as Willie is a native of Derry, a city with a huge nationalist majority but for years had a unionist council imposed on them by the unionist dominated Stormont through gerrymandering would he join the prop this gerrymandering depended on? They got away with this because the parent government in London allowed them to. So why would a person whose family had been discriminated against for over fifty years join the armed forces of that government? It really does beggar belief but there you go. If Carlin’s accounts of matters are to be taken as gospel then many questions need asking!

Back in 1974 the Carlin family had a telephone which they allowed republicans to use. Carlin claims he recorded the conversations using a tape recorder supplied by MI5! Did the IRA of the day really discuss military operations, as implied in the book, or did Sinn Fein talk politics over a neighbour’s telephone? Especially when they were aware the neighbour was an ex British Soldier! Did no alarm bells ring? The IRA in the Waterside district were openly discussing the new “top secret” cell structures of the army moving away from the old brigade system. This change was to increase security within the IRA so why, as implied by Willie Carlin, was the subject discussed openly? 

In Thatcher’s Spy it is more than suggested Martin McGuinness set up an INLA Volunteer for arrest by the RUC for one of that organisation’s operations. If this is the case, and I emphasise If, what he is saying is the Provisional movement from the top down was rotten. Grassing another republican armed group to the authorities was/is tantamount to treason! Or was this an attempt by the spy to create everlasting suspicion of the IRA by the INLA and vice versa? That sounds to me more likely. Disharmony within the broader republican family would serve the interests of Britain to a fine tune and is highly likely to have been the case. That is not to say Carlin’s claim holds no water whatsoever, anything is possible no matter how unlikely. 

Another incident which must be open to question, among many, was Carlin’s claim his sister Doreen was a member of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary republican organisation founded in 1914. It is not the fact she was a member of this organisation which is not a bone of contention, I’ve no doubt she was, but what happened next does raise eyebrows. The British Army raided the Carlin’s house looking for ammo. They found none but then Doreen, according to Carlin, tells him she fooled them proceeding to tell her brother her hideaway! She had hidden the bullets in her talc powder container, which was a shrewd move but one which, as it was successful, she would want to keep secret. Why would she tell her brother, an ex-British soldier, one of her most cherished secrets and one which hitherto had worked? There are some things you tell nobody, not even, or perhaps especially, families. But if the member of the family you are telling is an ex-Brit then surely security would be doubled, for everybody’s sake, including his? On the other hand, is Wee Willie trying to create the impression of a rag-tag organisation, the “Provos”, while at the same time elevating his own perceived intelligence level and standing?

On page 151 Carlin suggests that people were afraid of going to the RUC because of being suspected of informing. On the surface this may sound at least feasible but I think it underestimates the working-class people of Derry. He implies they would, ordinarily, go to the RUC for help but were afraid of the IRA if they did so. Again, this raises at best questions, because it was the people of Derry who fought the RUC to a standstill not many years previous in what became known as “The Battle of the Bogside”. Is it not more likely, the people of Derry did not go to the RUC because they saw them as the enemy? Because they detested the force and not because they were afraid of the IRA, could this not be more likely? Why go to a police force you neither trust or like, in fact hate?

Willie Carlin moved through the ranks of Sinn Fein, this there is no denying, but he tells a tale on page 154 which once more raises eyebrows. The BBC wanted to interview Martin McGuinness in the Sinn Fein centre at Gobnascale which, on the night in question was unavailable. 

So, I arranged for an empty flat in Mimosa Court to be dressed up to look like it. we put in a desk and chairs, a telephone that didn’t work, a tricolour, and hung a poster of Michael Collins on the wall.

Now, there can be no doubt at all that this method of building impersonation was used, but hanging a poster of Michael Collins on the wall? For those who are unaware, Michael Collins was the head of the Free State army after the truce – to become a treaty – was signed in 1921, and during the Civil War against the republicans until he was killed. Collins was executed by persons unknown in August 1922 during the Civil War, the treaty was enacted in December 1922 a year to the day after the signing. To republicans Collins sold out, he was a traitor hardly the man you would hang on the wall of a republican office! A poster of Liam Lynch perhaps, Padraig Pearse definitely but Mick Collins? Either the interviewer from the BBC had no knowledge of Irish history, which is unlikely, or Carlin is romanticising again. The BBC are not complete fools and any reporter worth their salt would, or should have spotted this flaw immediately.

The number of questionable incidents in Thatcher’s Spy are too numerous to mention them all. By now Carlin had moved over from MI5 to the FRU (Force Research Unit). However, I feel one more must be brought to the attention of the reader: on page 156 Mitchel McLaughlin claimed, before he promoted Carlin through the ranks of Sinn Fein, “I’m not sure of your politics but I do know you’re articulate, organised and you’re a bit of a leader.” Would a person’s politics and a knowledge of those politics not be paramount before that person be accepted as a member, let alone given a position of leadership in an organisation like Sinn Fein? 

Having met Mitchel McLaughlin, admittedly very briefly, he never struck me as a man who would be incompetent but, if Willie Carlin’s version of events are to be believed, that is perhaps exactly what he was/is. The question is, are Carlin’s version of events factual? Or are they based on truth with a great dollop of exaggerations and even lies thrown on top? This would suit the British agenda of painting a picture of an organisation full of incompetents, fools, informers and murderers! 

It cannot be argued: informers within the Provisional movement were numerous, which Willie Carlin was one. His level of importance may well have been exaggerated by him, right down to the code number, 007, he claims they gave him. Was this an attempt by agent Carlin to come close to Ian Flemings Agent 007, James Bond? Did Carlin see himself as the living embodiment of the fictitious spy? According to Martin Ingram – Ian Hurst real name according to Carlin – in his book Stakeknife a person fitting Carlin’s description was operating within Sinn Fein, it was Carlin, and his number was 3007. Throughout his book, until the later stages he maintained the number Agent 007 when at the end he adds the 3 making it 3007 which Ingram (Hurst) refers to him as. Writing of agent 3007 Ingram writes: 

another valuable agent was 3007. Each agent inside paramilitary groups was given a number. The first two digits gave the location of the agent in Northern Ireland; the second two were the agents unique identifying number.

This would figure as the 30 would, according to Ingram, signify the agent was in the area controlled by the FRU’s western detachment. Willie makes no mention of this and maintains, when he finally gives the complete number, the 3007 number was related to his date of birth, 30,07,1948. Ingram’s description of how numbers in the FRU were issued makes more sense, with the 30 depicting which area the agent was attached to. The 007 bit was probably coincidental and not, as I’m sure Willie would wish, any reference to James Bond! Nice romantic thought though. 

There is no doubt agent Willie Carlin, 3007, was of great assistance to the British, certainly if it was their intention all along to nudge the Republican Movement in the general direction of politics. It worked with the signing of the immortalised Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Having read that agreement, it has more contradictions than the Bible, and no self-respecting shop-steward would have signed it without much clarification of points. It is very unclear to say the least, open to many interpretations, ambiguous. Which begs the question had Carlin and his cohorts done sufficient damage putting Sinn Fein in a position of weakness, leaving them little choice but to sign? On the other hand, was/is the GFA a genuine attempt by the Provisional Republican Movement to bring about a peaceful settlement to the situation in the six counties? If this is the case a lot of young people met premature deaths fighting for a united Ireland to be, in real terms, sold well short.

According to Willie Carlin speaking of dead agents and informers, buried in secret, though not sinister locations, unlike the “disappeared”, he says:

I cannot and will not publicly disclose the locations of their resting places. After all, they could be the target of hate mongers and avengers for years to come.

This is probably very true, such is the nature of the work they undertook. Carlin also claims, probably with justification, if he were to return to Derry “a similar fate” awaits him, meaning he would be killed. He then goes on to tell us, at the end of the book, “so I exist to the end in the world of the unforgiven, even though I firmly believe that I did my bit to help bring peace to the land that I loved.” This being the case, which is very questionable, why did he join those who brought war?

When Willie Carlin was finally settled in England, using Thatcher’s private jet to escape, he met one of his previous drivers, one of a team of handlers, Ian Hurst. Hurst was an FRU man at the time – himself leaving the unit because he did not agree with murder be it by the IRA or the British state who allowed murder to continue in order to defend their agents – and much of what Hurst [Ingram] wrote supports Carlin’s versions of events. Did the two former FRU agents collude distorting events as they went along? They certainly met long before Carlin was resettled in England, and not, as Carlin initially suggests in Kent. They met much earlier recalls Hurst [Ingram] referring to Carlin’s wife; “This lady was fearless. Once maybe twice a year, she would accompany her husband to his meeting with us.” And this was long before Hurst became Carlin’s friend in England. 

Collusion is still, at this stage doubtful, Ingram and Harkins book Stakeknife was written fifteen years prior to Carlin’s work, Thatcher’s Spy 2019. It’s interesting to note he had all that time, he was by then resettled, between Ingram’s work and the death of Martin McGuinness in 2017 to write his book when McGuinness was around to answer the allegations. Carlin claims McGuiness gave the order for an INLA man to be touted to the RUC but Martin McGuinness is not here to answer the charge! Carlin claims he did his “bit to help bring peace” to the land he loved. Yet, in his writings, Ingram states: 

in time, 3007 became an expert at getting government funding for all types of schemes, such as the Action for Community Employment (ACE) schemes, which provided jobs for the long term unemployed.

This would certainly support the claim Carlin was a well-respected member of Sinn Fein, and was taken seriously by those in authority. Ingram says earlier on however:

3007 lived in Derry. He was a married man with three children, one of whom had learning difficulties. This agent was motivated almost exclusively by finance.

This description hardly fits with the picture Carlin paints of himself, trying to do his “bit to help bring peace to the land he loved.” Which version is correct, Ingram’s which suggests Willie was a man motivated by money, or Carlin’s image of himself as an almost patriot, a man who “did his bit” for the land he loved, which one is to be believed as authentic?

The first time Willie Carlin mentions meeting Ian Hurst in Thatcher’s Spy is on page 214. 

We were still in Kent in September when Ian Hurst turned up. Ian was the van driver who would pick me up at various locations between Derry and Limavady and then transport me back to Ebrington Barracks for debriefings.

Ian Hurst [Martin Ingram] is not mentioned earlier when all other handlers were! Why? He goes on to tell us “we became friends and he advised me not to let my guard down because the IRA were all out to find me.” Obviously, Kent was not the first time these two had met, yet Carlin initially implies he hardly knew Ian Hurst despite Hurst once being one of his team of handlers, albeit his driver. Carlin’s friendship with Hurst blossomed and, in one conversation the FRU man told the other FRU man: 

you see, Willie, British soldiers are not allowed to carry arms loaded with live rounds in the UK unless a special act is passed – civil disorder or some other state of emergency.

This, of course is not strictly true because “British soldiers” always carried loaded weapons in the six counties, part of the so-called UK! Or, was this area one of those in which a special act was passed? Carlin goes on:

Ian and I had many discussions during those weeks. I remember asking him, do you know of the soldier in Belfast who saved my life? But he didn’t saying he ‘had only been at the Derry end of things, Willie, and as far as I know that’s a well-guarded secret.

In his jointly written book, Stakeknife on page 56 Ingram claims, without mentioning names:

3007’s cover was blown when MI5 agent Michael Bethany, who was a Soviet spy revealed his name to republicans who were fellow inmates of his in Wormwood Scrubs prison. However, FRU got the information before it reached the IRA.

And this information came, it appears, from Scappaticci who was the man from the “Nutting Squad” assigned to kill Carlin. Willie Carlin would not see Ian Hurst again until the year 2000. They met in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, where Hurst was now operating under the name Martin Ingram. This was only four years before Ingram and his co-writer, Gregg Harkin, published their book Stakeknife, much of which collaborates a lot of what Carlin claims in his book. Could it be that long after the relationship they had while working for the security forces ended, Hurst being the handler and Carlin the servant, they continued working together in the field of publishing? Could it be Ingram became an advisor – even ghost writer – for Willie Carlin when he wrote the book, Thatcher’s Spy? Could it have been Ingram’s job to ensure no contradictions involving events, including murder occurred? Could it also be, despite Ingram’s claims to have left forever the MOD – even turned against them in many respects – he was to ensure Carlin did not write anything he shouldn’t, didn’t drop anybody in the shit? Could his job have been to ensure the Provisional Republican Movement came out of this totally discredited, by whatever means necessary? Not for the first time the book leaves more questions to be asked than answered!

Then we have the two differing descriptions of Mary Carlin, Willies wife. According to her husband, James, one of the team assigned to look after the former agent, once gave Mary a dressing down for compromising security and the work he and his team were doing. Mary Carlin had committed the mortal sin of telling her mother, during a telephone conversation, unwittingly, where they were. James berated the woman shouting; “you have a lose mouth! You were warned not to say anything to your mother about where you and Willie are living.” James was shouting and appeared to be in an uncontrollable rage because Mary had told her mother she had been “shopping in Brighton” thus giving their location away. It transpired Martin McGuinness had paid Mary’s mother a visit and the worry was she’d tell him about the shopping trip. Mary Carlin broke down and cried at this shouting which Willie complained to James about.

Then we have another description of Mary Carlin, this time from Martin Ingram. He described the woman as a woman he had met accompanying her husband when he was meeting his handlers, Ingram [Hurst] being one of the team. She usually had:

in her hand there was always a cluster of unpaid bills – everything from electricity and telephone bills to the bill from Radio Rentals for the family television and video.

He then goes on to say; “the prospect of receiving a verbal battering from this lady was not what most handlers would consider a good afternoons sport.” This description from Ingram of Mary is not conducive with a woman who would break down in tears after somebody shouted at her! More like a woman who may carry a good right hook to the verbal abuser for insolence! Again, a minor detail, among many which contradicts the other description. Although Ingram backs up much of the important stuff Carlin had to say, on the sub-issues like this one, there are contradictions. Maybe this was done on purpose to create a smoke and mirrors scenario, casting doubt and diverting suspicion away from any collusion between the two former agents. Perhaps there was no collusion, but the fact still remains there may have been based on the evidence of two books. 

Finally, it appears Freddie Scappaticci, known as the agent Stakeknife, saved Willie Carlin’s life. The agent inside Sinn Fein who had fooled everybody, was given away, apparently, by his former handler known as “Ben” – real name Michael Bethany – who was working for the Soviet Union. Could this be where the 007 bit comes in!? “Ben” was also apparently Scappaticci's handler and the agent told his handler he was to take Carlin out. This the information was passed by “Ben” to the FRU who got Carlin out just in time. This claim is supported by Ingram in his book. The Soviet spy revealed Carlin’s name to republicans while he was in Wormwood Scrubs. When this information reached the FRU, via Stakeknife the man assigned to kill Carlin, Willie was relocated, according to Ingram, “to Britain, with a new house and a new identity. His marriage subsequently collapsed and he is now penniless.” Is this the British looking after their own, leaving them destitute? Or was Willie Carlin not as important as he thought he was?

Thatcher’s Spy is a work of mixed messages, perhaps that was by design. For the important events Carlin is backed up by Ingram, suggesting there may have been collusion. Then, on details of less importance like the character of Mary Carlin the two descriptions differ, one saying Mary was a formidable woman who, “most handlers would not consider a good afternoons sport.” Then we have Willies description of his wife saying “she broke down and cried” after a man had shouted at her. These are two different accounts of the same woman. Then we have Ingram claiming agent 3007 was “motivated almost exclusively by finance.” This differed from Willies description of why he did what he did, “for the country he loved” not money! Were these contradictions on less important matters an attempt to mask possible collusion on more important issues? Collusion designed to belittle the republican movement? Who knows what goes on in these peoples heads, joining that crowd in the first place for a Catholic from Derry beggars belief in itself!

There is no doubt Willie Carlin was an agent inside Sinn Fein, this is supported by other former agents who never mention Carlin’s name, just his number 3007. The question is how valuable was he to his masters? If it was the British intention to push the Provisional movement towards “democracy” as they call it, then he certainly helped them. Or was Carlin one of many minor agents with an inflated ego? If this was the case why would the British help get him out of the six counties so quickly, hardly worth the expense for a minor player, let alone Thatcher’s private jet! Perhaps when Thatcher’s Spy has been read there remains more questions unanswered than before the first page was opened. The book is a catalogue of truths, half-truths, myths and propaganda creating, as I’m sure was the intention, confusion and uncertainty not least within the provisional movement, but also in the minds of many readers.

Willie Carlin, 2019, Thatcher’s Spy: My Life as an MI5 Agent Inside Sinn Fein. Merrion Press. ISBN-13: 978-1785372858

Thatcher’s Spy

A Morning Thought @ 666

Writing last November Gabriel Levy made the point that scientists are not infallible.

Climate scientists understand potential climate disasters, but can not accurately predict the timescales or details of how they will unfold.

Some are more sceptical than others about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but all see it as an essential outlet for their research.

When pushed to question some of the IPCC’s ludicrous assumptions on negative emissions technologies, some are readier than others to criticise.

These were my impressions from an all day conference in London yesterday, where scientists presented the IPCC’s three recent reports – on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, on oceans and ice sheets, and on land and agriculture.

All the scientists who spoke had felt a shot in the arm from the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion. “People now feel the urgency in a more visceral way”, Andy Challinor of Leeds university said, opening the event.

Earth, from space. No land is visible because that is the Pacific Ocean. Corinne Le Quere showed 
this photo at yesterday’s conference: a reminder that the oceans cover 70% of the earth’s surface

Speakers repeatedly urged political and social action, which they are convinced can avert the worst impacts of global warming. But there was no mention of radical social change: the appeals were, rather, for “joined-up government policy”.

The event was organised by the Royal Meteorological Society of the UK. It was free to get in and open to all. There was a deluge of useful information, clearly and thoughtfully explained. (The presentations and other relevant stuff are on its web site here.)

To be honest, I could not understand why it wasn’t over-booked, and was disappointed that there were empty seats. One scientist I talked to in a coffee break saw it differently: he had been at previous “tell-the-public” events that attracted just a handful of non-scientists, and was pleased by the turnout.

Science includes uncertainty

Media reports often miss the uncertainties in climate science, because the scientists provide sound-bites designed to combat climate science denial. But the uncertainties were mentioned in the frank, open discussions at yesterday’s event.

The scientists basically have no clue as to whether, over the 21st century, it will turn out bad, extremely bad, or catastrophic – for one thing, because that depends to a large extent on human society and how it acts.

Mike Meredith of the British Antarctic Society, introducing the IPCC report on oceans and the cryosphere (that’s ice, to us non-scientists), said: “The level of sea level rise [in coming decades] depends on choices we make. There are strong, policy-relevant issues.”

London, where the event was taking place, will face sea level rise of anything between 29 cm and 115 cm by 2100. “The greatest contribution will coming from melting ice sheets and glaciers. The greatest uncertainty is Antarctica.”

The IPCC report calls for “timely, ambitious and coordinated action”, Meredith added, and should be used to “empower people, communities and governments”. Many of the speakers used similar phrases.

Mat Collins of the Exeter university, asked about the speed with which the Arctic could become ice-free, said: “If we stopped emitting carbon today, we might get some ice back.” That will not happen, so: “The answer is: we do not know.” There are multiple feedbacks, some positive, some negative.

Collins said that the idea of rapid destabilisation of marine ice sheets had been under discussion in the IPCC group that drafted the oceans report. “We feel that the science is uncertain. If it wasn’t in the headline statements, it doesn’t mean we didn’t think about it. It means the science wasn’t clear.”

Don’t forget, dear readers, that, despite these difficulties, the IPCC report is frightening enough. The summary for policymakers says:

Between 1979 and 2018, Arctic sea ice has very likely decreased for all months of the year. September sea ice reductions are very likely 12.8 ± 2.3% [that is 12.8%, plus or minus 2.3%] per decade. These sea ice changes in September are likely unprecedented for at least 1000 years. Arctic sea ice has thinned, concurrent with a transition to younger ice: between 1979 and 2018, the areal proportion of multi-year ice at least five years old has declined by approximately 90% (very high confidence).
Feedbacks from the loss of summer sea ice and spring snow cover on land have contributed to amplified warming in the Arctic (high confidence) where surface air temperature likely increased by more than double the global average over the last two decades.

The words in italics indicate the scientists’ consensus view about how sure they are of each prediction.

Over the long term (the next two or three centuries), the sea level rise that scares the scientists most is not from the Arctic, but from the Antarctic ice sheet melting. (I also wrote about this here.)

Jane Rumble, a scientist who works at the UK Foreign Office, said it is “quite likely” that the western Antarctic ice sheet will collapse. “Once it’s gone, that’s not going to re-grow. It will not come back.” Asked whether there was any point to international climate agreements, she said: “Well, if it wasn’t on the governments’ agenda, governments wouldn’t insist on studying, for example, the rate of melt of the Thwaites glacier [a key element of the west Antarctic picture.]” 

Projections of sea level rise and ice mass loss from the IPCC oceans and cryosphere report. 
Blue = the IPCC’s RCP 2.6 scenario, which assumes that action is taken to tackle climate change. 
Red = the RCP8.5 scenario, which assumes “business as usual”

Rumble explained how she had been to an international meeting of government officials and presented research from the Grantham Institute on the effect of warming. The Japanese and Chinese delegates “denied that warming was happening at all”, and the American delegates “could not comment”. “We could not get the research endorsed.”

I am not blind to the fact that the UK government, Rumble’s employer, is anxious to paint itself as leading the fight on climate, although its policies (discussed elsewhere on this blog) show otherwise. But her insights on Antarctica, on oil exploration in the southern ocean, and other issues, were valuable.

Questions about NETs

From the audience – a pretty well-informed mix of students, campaigners, researchers in related areas and others – the biggest suspicion of the IPCC (which I share) concerned the assumptions in its scenarios about the large-scale future use of negative emissions technologies (NETs).

Many people, including many climate scientists, think these are drastically inflated, to make the scenarios look as though warming can be limited with less rapid action to cut fossil fuel emissions than would otherwise be needed.

Answering a question on this, Philip Williamson of the University of East Anglia, an oceanographer, said that the drafting group for the IPCC oceans report was “instructed not to consider NETs” (which feature in the larger five-yearly IPCC assessment reports). “There are a few paragraphs on ocean fertilisation. It’s quite speculative.”

He added: “Personally I don’t think they are going to work.” In general, large scale geo-engineering solutions do not have “political and public acceptance”.

Supposed climate “solutions” such as planting seaweed – claimed to be effective for soaking up carbon – should not be called solutions, “unless you put double quotation marks around  it”,
Williamson said. Whereas seaweed rots and the carbon sequestrated ends up back in the atmosphere, mangrove forests have roots in the sediment and retain carbon more effectively.

Land mammals by weight. Andy Challinor showed this to yesterday’s conference: 
a reminder of the devastating human impact on land
The NETs question also came up in the session on the IPCC’s land report. The inclusion of gigantic assumptions about the future use of Bio Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) in IPCC scenarios was questioned. (I’ve also written about this here and here.)

Pete Smith of Aberdeen university, a soil and ecosystems researcher, said bluntly: “If we use an area the size of India for BECCS, then we no longer have that area for food production.”

If BECCS was ever used on the scale implied by IPCC scenarios, “that would mean we are in big trouble”, he added.

The criticism of the IPCC was implied, not explicit. It was left to an audience member, in another session, to denounce the use of BECCS in the scenarios as “a fantasy”.

Perhaps the ultimate audience question was: “It’s so strange to hear this report. Why is this not reacted to? Why is there not an emergency? Why no Manhattan-style project?”

Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia, an oceanographer and one of the founders of the Global Carbon Project, said this was a good question. “How many IPCC reports do we need?”

Le Quéré said that over the last twenty years she had battled against climate science deniers – and now witnessed the rise of the Fridays for Future movement and Extinction Rebellion. There is “no voice in the middle”, and what government actions are taken are “not at the necessary scale”.

There had been “incredible support” for climate action, she said, but also opposition to government measures – such as by the French yellow vests and Dutch farmers, who demonstrated against diesel price rises, and demonstrators in Ecuador who opposed the removal of subsidies.

This showed that “transition needs to be fair” and people had to be won over.

In my view, this went to the heart of the conference’s politics. Most of the speakers saw government, and business, as the prime movers of political change. For Le Quéré, the most pressing measures to forestall climate change are market-based ones, and government’s job is to balance the interests of those penalised by them with those who want action on climate.

This is a false dichotomy. It takes as given neoliberal economic policies, such as those of the French government that triggered the “yellow vests” protests.

There was no suggestion that radical social change that could be combined with measures on climate change, in such a way as to penalise the big corporations that bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for it.

Le Quéré’s view was, I think, representative of the scientists at yesterday’s conference. Many of them complained that government policy was ineffective because it was incoherent, and that different government departments were moving in different directions. But no-one dared breathe the word “regulation”, which is surely a basic minimum for any effective climate policies.

It is not that climate scientists do not talk about these things. Some are politically outspoken: in the UK, most obviously, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre at Manchester university. In 2013, the centre organised a more explicitly political event than yesterday’s, a “radical emissions reduction conference”. (The word “radical” referred both to swingeing emissions cuts and the policies needed to produce them.)

Campaign organisations and social movements could, and should, have picked that initiative up and run with it, in my view. We might have found ways of widening the space for dialogue between scientists and movements. We didn’t, and that’s our collective failure.

Together is better

My humble suggestion would be that we who are active in social movements try harder to work together with climate scientists.

It has become fashionable among some climate campaigners simply to denounce the IPCC as fundamentally flawed, and quote only those scientists who publish more radical policy proposals. I think that’s a bad mistake – not because such proposals are wrong, or because we should read the IPCC reports uncritically, but because we should engage with the scientists whose work is aggregated there.

Science is not neutral. It is done in a social context; the power and wealth that dominates society also dominates science; and those relations are played out not only through the IPCC but through the whole university system.

But, while constrained by that context, climate scientists are doing work on which all of us depend. The event yesterday was a reminder of the titanic efforts they put in, the incredible complexity of the process – and also of the way that all sorts of pressures, from departmental memos to high-level political pressure on the IPCC, are used to control their work.

Another lever is funding by fossil fuel companies – an issue raised at yesterday’s event by a student campaigner who challenged Emily Shuckburgh of Cambridge university about a recent £6 million grant from Shell to some of her colleagues.

The challenges are not (usually) about outright censorship, but about massaging the message, fitting the science in with economic arguments that slot into the neoliberal agenda, and imposing political assumptions that gel with governments’ attempts to avoid acting on the consequences of the science.

This is a difficult battle. Scientists and social movements should fight it together. 

Climate change must be a thing. It’s on prime time TV (April 2019)

Climate scientists go for “human tipping point” (May 2014)

Stop tailoring global warming scenarios to make them “politically palatable” (interview with Kevin Anderson, July 2013)

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