Category Archives: Objections

What I believe and why

Tristan and I have been discussing the importance of what people believe to the general issue of climate action. As such, it seems worth answering the key question behind this site: Why do I believe that we can move to a global economy based on renewable, zero-carbon sources of energy?

Why climate change is scary

Partly, my belief is rooted in the belief that doing so is necessary. That belief arises from two major sources. There is the degree to which I can evaluate the empirical evidence and related theories myself, and then there is the degree to which I think bodies like the IPCC and National Academy of Sciences are credible. To me, there seems to be many lines of evidence that reinforce one another. We have all kinds of observations – from temperature records to species migration patterns to ice core samples – that seem to demonstrate that greenhouse gas concentrations affect the climate, and that the climate can change in ways that would be very dangerous for humanity.

The fact that I find James Hansen credible enough to take seriously contributes to a significant extent to my concern about the possibility of runaway climate change. So does the fact that I haven’t seen any forceful rebuttal of his argument from credible scientists or organizations (though many object to his overt political advocacy).

Even if runaway climate change will not happen, it seems like there is strong evidence that warming of more than 5°C would have devastating consequences for humanity. Furthermore, it seems like that is the amount of warming we are likely to produce by the end of the 21st century, unless we change the development path the world is following.

Why renewables can do the job

All that makes me think the transition is necessary. I think it is possible because of the same combination of factors. I know enough to be able to see that the total incoming energy from sunlight far exceeds the current energy use of humanity. Furthermore, I know that we can convert that energy into forms that are useful for us. This belief is reinforced by calculations like those in David MacKay’s book. You can take the average amount of sunlight falling on a square metre of the ground in a day and combine that with the current efficiency of different means of converting that energy into a useful form and arrive at a sense of how many metres we need per person, to give people an amount of energy comparable to what they are using today.

On that basis, the transition to renewables looks feasible, though the scale of the thing is clearly massive. Producing a comparable amount of energy per person using renewables will probably require using a significant portion of the world’s total land area. That said, it is quite possible that the land can be used in multiple ways. We can farm between wind turbines, after all.

Why we can (hopefully) afford it

Finally, I believe that the transition is affordable almost completely on the basis of the testimony from others. I don’t know enough – and haven’t put in enough time – to produce an assessment comparable to that of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

This last section is admittedly the weakest. I cannot say for sure that the transition will be affordable – only that the best available evidence suggests that it is. Given that the transition is both necessary and possible, I think we should do it even in the less likely case that it is very expensive.

After all, climate change threatens to devastate human civilization, by undermining the stable climate upon which it depends. Even if making the transition to zero-carbon forms of energy was massively expensive – so much so that it was just about the only thing we could do aside from grow enough food to survive – the choice to make that investment would still be the best option open to us.

Merchants of Doubt

In Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have produced an important, convincing, and focused book explaining how certain individuals and organizations have intentionally confused the public understanding of science, in areas including the dangers of tobacco smoke, acid rain, and climate change. While – in a certain sense – the book lays out a theory about a conspiracy, the argument differs fundamentally from your standard ‘conspiracy theory’ insofar as the claims being made are precise and specifically documented. Oreskes and Conway point out how Person X, funded by Organization Y, made misleading claim Z despite having previous knowledge of why it is false. They point out how the tobacco industry led “a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud” for years after their own scientists had informed executives about the dangers of tobacco. Now, an alliance between fossil fuel interests and anti-regulation ideologues is proving dangerously effective at preventing well-informed debate on climate change.

Merchants of Doubt is very specific in its focus. It discusses the development of science and policy on certain questions: missile defence, acid rain, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, climate change, and pesticides. It shows how the common thread uniting many of those who raised questions about the science in each case was a deep-seated opposition to government regulation, sometimes rooted in anti-communism. The book does not go into such questions as what ought to be done about climate change, whether it is possible to stop, or what costs and benefits would accompany the shift to a zero-carbon economy. It doesn’t even go into great detail on what is known about climate science, or the lines of evidence that support the current consensus on climate change. The book focuses exclusively on telling the story of the construction of phony debates, and accomplishes that task convincingly. Oreskes and Conway also use logical arguments and examples to refute some of the most problematic faulty beliefs that have arisen on the subjects of climate change, regulation, and environmentalism in general. It also discusses some quirks of science – such as how practitioners prefer to focus on uncertain areas of new research – and explains how such tendencies have been exploited by those aiming for public confusion.

Merchants of Doubt ends up being quite critical of the media. It argues that individuals are poorly equipped to assess apparent disagreements on highly technical subjects. The book argues that the media has been effectively exploited by individuals like Fred Singer and organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute – groups that understood how the media and public opinion functioned, and who were happy to use their expertise to create confusion on important issues. The authors argue that: “small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organized, determined, and have access to power.” People with good intentions can unintentionally do harm, and sometimes government needs to impose regulations to address that. Those individuals and groups who fundamentally oppose that basic logic have made attacking science into a mechanism for avoiding its conclusions.

Like Jim Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: the Crusade to Deny Global Warming, Oreskes and Conway’s book makes for frustrating and uncomfortable reading. It is unnerving to see how easily politicians, media outlets, and other organizations with a pre-existing bias against government intervention can be convinced that science justifies inaction, even when there is a strong consensus to the contrary. Whereas ignorance about acid rain or secondhand smoke had large but bounded consequences, catastrophic or runaway climate change is a profound threat to civilization itself. In that context, it is frightening that such a small band of skilled and determined individuals have been able to have such sway on public opinion and the political process, helping to drive poor decision-making.

The success of the campaign to mislead is perhaps nowhere more frightening than in among American conservatives today. For decades, the world’s scientific bodies have expressed their increasing (and now considerable) confidence that climate change is a real problem, caused by people, about which something ought to be done. The fact that the world remains largely inactive on the issue is thus deeply worrying. Hopefully, the attempts of Oreskes and others to demonstrate how the debate has been manipulated will lead to a clarification in thinking, followed by the deployment of effective actions.

Maybe, after seeing the same group of people be wrong about tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change people will finally stop seeing these people and organizations as good sources of advice on matters of public policy. Oreskes and Conway have provided a service, in moving humanity toward that point. The level of detail with which they have done so is commendable. It is too common to see political outcomes attributed to the power of vague interests; it is much more informative and useful to see precise attribution of who did what, accompanied by informed consideration of why and with what importance.

The phony debate on climate science

In their book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe in great detail how industries that stand to lose from climate change regulations have allied themselves with libertarian think tanks to produce the false sense that climate science is deeply uncertain, and that no action should be taken as a result. Oreskes and Conway identify dozens of examples of deception and misconduct, as well as the financial and personal ties that lie between those who want climate change ignored and many of the most prominent people still arguing that the science is unsettled.

They conclude that this effort has been hugely successful. It has left many fair-minded people in a state of confusion, and allowed for continued paralysis on the issue within the political system. For being duped so easily and thoroughly, the media deserves much of the blame:

With the rise of radio, television, and now the Internet, it sometimes seems that anyone can have their opinion heard, quoted, and repeated, whether it is true or false, sensible or ridiculous, fair-minded or malicious.

The cacophony of conflicting claims is particularly unhelpful when it comes to sorting out matters related to science, because science depends on evidence, and not all positions are equally grounded in it. Indeed, we’ve seen throughout this book how a small group of men with scientific bona fides and deep political connections deliberately distorted public debate, running effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. And we’ve seen how many skeptical claims are based on ignoring evidence. This presents a real difficulty, one that is not easily resolved, for how can you prove that someone has ignored something? One can often show what something is; it is far harder to demonstrate what it is not. Clearly, people have a right to speak; the question is, to whom should we be listening?

For half a century the tobacco industry, the defenders of SDI, and the skeptics about acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming strove to “maintain the controversy” and “keep the debate alive” by fostering claims that were contrary to the mainstream of scientific evidence and expert judgment. They promoted claims that had already been refuted in the scientific literature, and the media became complicit as they reported these claims as if they were part of an ongoing scientific debate. Often the media did so without informing readers, viewers, and listeners that the “experts” being quoted had links to the tobacco industry, were affiliated with ideologically motivated think tanks the received money from the tobacco industry (or in later years the fossil fuel industry), or were simply habitual contrarians, who perhaps enjoyed the attention they got promoting outlier views. Perhaps correspondents felt that adding this information would be editorializing. Or perhaps they did not know.

Merchants of Doubt is not the first book to delve into all of this. Another example is James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. That makes it especially pathetic that so many policy-makers and prominent individuals continue to be duped, particularly within right-leaning political parties. Just how shabby does this deception need to become, before those whose immediate interests it serves feel embarrassed about relying on it?

To be sure, there is plenty of real climate science left to be done. The climate system is complex and our understanding of it is imperfect. What is critical is that such scientific questions continue to be evaluated from a position of neutrality – not from one that takes protecting vested interests as a starting point. On the policy front, what is critical is basing our decisions on the best information available and acting in a way that manages risk – particularly the kind of severe and irreversible risks posed by climate change.

Correspondence with Robert Laughlin

Recently, I wrote a post criticizing an article by Dr. Robert Laughlin, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics. In it, he argues that the Earth is more than capable of enduring human-induced climate change, and that human beings are nearly certain to burn all the world’s fossil fuels.

Since then, we have exchanged correspondence which is available in full below.

Continue reading

Robert Laughlin’s flawed climate change analysis

Even Nobel Prize winners can say foolish things. This is demonstrated by the recent comments of Stanford University physicist and 1998 physics laureate Robert Laughlin, who has been arguing that human-induced climate change is no big deal, because the Earth has had worse:

Writing in the summer issue of the magazine The American Scholar, Prof. Laughlin offers a profoundly different perspective on climate change. “Common sense tells us that damaging a thing as old as [Earth] is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish – like invading Russia.” For planet Earth, he says, the crisis of climate change, if crisis it be, will be a walk in the park.

Relax, Prof. Laughlin advises. Let it be. “The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we gaze into the future,” he says, “not because it’s unimportant but because it’s beyond our power to control.” Whatever humans throw at it, in other words, Earth will fix things in its own time and its own way.

The error in thinking here is to equate the continued existence of the Earth with the continued healthy existence of humanity. Yes, the planet has been through a lot, including some cataclysmic extinction events. That being said, compared to the Earth humanity is young and vulnerable. Civilization has only been around for 10,000 years or so, and during a period of unusual climatic calm.

While the greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere do not endanger the planet, in the sense that it might cease to be a huge ball of iron orbiting the sun annually, they do threaten the future health and prosperity of humanity. At the very least, there is good reason to believe that the costs borne by humanity if we allow climate change to run unchecked far exceed the costs of stopping the problem, and moving to sustainable forms of energy at the same time. And that is to say nothing of the suffering that will inevitably accompany dangerous amounts of climate change. Laughlin’s argument is somewhat akin to seeing a baby driving around on a bulldozer and saying: “There’s no need to worry, that bulldozer will be just fine.”

Laughlin also makes the demonstrably incorrect claim that the Earth is just too vast for humanity to affect:

The earth doesn’t include the potentially catastrophic effects on civilization in its planning. Far from being responsible for damaging the earth’s climate, civilization might not be able to forestall any of these terrible changes once the earth has decided to make them. Were the earth determined to freeze Canada again, for example, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything except selling your real estate in Canada. If it decides to melt Greenland, it might be best to unload your property in Bangladesh. The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.

He obviously hasn’t been paying much attention to atmospheric chemistry. James Hansen has repeatedly pointed out how a single factory manufacturing CFCs (chemicals used as refrigerants and propellants, but which are also powerful greenhouse gases) could stave off the ice ages that used to be induced by the planet’s orbital variations. When it comes to the thermostat of the planet, humanity is now firmly in control, though our addiction to fossil fuels means we are doing all we can to twist it towards ‘hot.’

Laughlin is right to point out that the weathering of rock will eventually remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere. What he neglects to explain is the implications of the relevant timescale; this process takes thousands of years, meaning it offers no immediate help for humanity. If, in the mean time, we have burned all of the world’s oil, coal, and gas, we will be dealing with a rapidly changing climate, eventual sea level increase of ten metres or more, and the kind of planet-wide destabilization that humanity has never known. He may take comfort from the Earth’s ability to endure, but shouldn’t suggest that humanity is equally robust.

[Update: 21 July 2010] Please see: Correspondence with Robert Laughlin

Suzuki’s bottom line

Especially during the ongoing global economic crisis, politicians and industries have been very effective at using the argument that we must ‘balance’ environmental protection with economic growth in order to avoid increased regulation of profitable but damaging industries like the oil sands or offshore oil and gas exploitation. In a sign of just how effective this strategy has been, leading Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki is launching a new series, entitled The Bottom Line, which intends to focus on precisely this. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Suzuki expresses his frustration with how ineffective the environmental movement has been, and how effectively blocked it has been by appeals to the importance of continued economic growth.

There are certainly strong counterarguments to the claim that we should privilege the economy completely over the environment. Most fundamentally, doing so puts us in a parasitic situation, in relation to future generations. We more irreplaceable natural capital we suck out of the Earth, the less of a solid base they will have upon which to meet their needs and sustain their civilization. There are also strong arguments that only consider those alive right now; you just need to count the suffering of those dying from air pollution as well as the jobs and government revenues created by the coal mining companies and power plants generating those toxins.

The ‘balance’ argument is an insidious one, because it seems common sense and reasonable, and also because it suggests a false dynamic. Specifically, it suggests that we are already making major economic sacrifices for the sake of environmental protection. That can certainly be questioned. Even looking only at tangible benefits to those alive now, the kind of environmental regulations we have in place are easily justified in economic terms. We were hardly in a position of making special environmental sacrifices, before the crisis in the global economic system forced us to reluctantly think about the cash in our wallets again.

Hopefully, Suzuki will be able to spread some of those messages in an effective way.

Pessimism about renewables

Over on my blog, I have written a post that may be of interest to BuryCoal readers. Specifically, it is a response to the argument that society cannot depend on renewable forms of energy for the bulk of our needs because we get such a small proportion of our current needs from such sources, and there are problems with variability.

In brief, this argument is based on muddled reasoning, saying: “This is hard, therefore we cannot do it.” In reality, moving to renewables is necessary, and humanity will either accomplish it or find itself reduced to a pre-industrial mode of life.

Hegel and Climate Denial

From Philosophy of right § 132:

“The right of the subjective will is that whatever it is to recognise as valid shall be seen by it as good, and that an action, as its aim entering upon external objectivity, shall be imputed to it as right or wrong, good or evil, legal or illegal, in accordance with its knowledge of the worth which the action has in this objectivity.”

There is a standard dogma in contemporary ethics which says that any ethical theory must decide whether any action is right either because of the intention behind it, or because of the results that it causes. (As with most problems in contemporary philosophy, this one is caused by ignoring Hegel – the historical genesis of this rejection can be traced largely to Russell, whose dominance was cemented in the American academy by post war McCarthyism).

What Hegel is asserting in this quote is that the rightness of an action can be comprehended neither by simply by looking inside to the pure validity of motive (as in Kant), nor purely by evaluating external effects no matter their connection to motive (strict utilitarianism), but rather that what makes an action right has to do with a motive which already grasps the worth of that action’s external, objective effects. Humans are not purely internal subjects – they are always engaged in a world, and all of their actions are, to an extent, pre-comprehensible in their objective ramifications. This is obvious to everyone, except perhaps some moral philosophers, and is enshrined in our legal system through the duel requirement of an actus reus and mens rea for conviction in a criminal case. If Hegel, in saying this, adds something to this everyday liberal notion, it is only that the external and internal elements in a moral act mutually include each other – a mens rea is only a mens rea when it contains the actus reus as “knowledge”, and that an “actus reus” is only genuinely a moral transgression if it is generated out of a subjective will which entered into external objectivity in accordance with knowledge of the worth of the objective act in its knowledge.

But what does this have to do with climate change? It would mean very little, almost nothing, if Hegel were merely asserting a slightly different way to metaphysically understand the relations between the actus rae and the mens reus. However, Hegel actually disagrees with the standard liberal notion that “the criminal in the moment of his action must have had a ‘clear idea’ of the wrong and its culpability before it can be imputed to him as a crime”. On the contrary – the fact that we have insight into the objective good means that we can be culpable for failing to exercise this insight:

“But to turn momentary blindness, the goad of passion, intoxication, or, in a word, what is called the strength of sensual impulse (excluding impulses which are the basis of the right of distress – see § 127) into reasons when the imputation, specific character, and culpability of a crime are in question, and to look upon such circumstances as if they took away the criminal’s guilt, again means (compare § 100 and the Remark to § 120) failing to treat the criminal in accordance with the right and honour due to him as a man; for the nature of man consists precisely in the fact that he is essentially something universal, not a being whose knowledge is an abstractly momentary and piecemeal affair.” (my emphasis)

Hegel’s conclusions follow from taking seriously the fact that humans are “something universal”, which means here merely that they are capable of knowledge and responsibility – that they are not simply random assemblages being but things that transcend beings, stand over beings, can see and know beings. If we really believe humans are capable of knowledge, that means we can understand them as being guilty for failing to have knowledge in a particular circumstance. This does not mean humans are guilty of every mal effect of their actions which they do not happen to predict – but it means that the negative effects of actions can be understood as having a form of presence in the knowledge of those subjects who acted – a negative presence, a lack for which they are culpable. Failing to recognize the culpability people can have for not knowing the effects of an action means treating them as beings for which knowledge is only a “piecemeal affair” – they know something one minute, and forget it the next.

Now, Hegel is using this argument in Philosophy of Right to claim that punishment is demanded even in situations where the criminal did not have what liberal scholars today would call an mens rea – because that mens rea is really contained in the lack of a mens rea when a universal being fails to grasp the ends of their actions in, for instance, lighting a building on fire. However, the same argument extends to moral issues where the lack of some knowledge (such as knowledge about global warming) might be used to assert those who don’t know about global warming, or those who choose to believe global warming is not a serious problem for our generation, are not morally culpable for climate damaging activity which they engage in out of this ignorance. Perhaps the greatest climate damaging activity of all is the reproduction of false claims concerning global warming – because of the huge practical effect of mainstream media in contemporary society. We tend to think that people are ignorant, and that it is our duty to enlighten them. While this is certainly true, what Hegel might say is that because we understand humans to be capable of knowledge, those who fail to gain knowledge about the effects of their actions when such knowledge is readily available (i.e. through blog projects like this one), can actually be held morally culpable for their ignorance.

This of course does not apply only to the case of climate change – it applies to all practical action. For instance, if knowledge concerning state injustices against specific groups is readily available, it might be right to hold you morally culpable for not engaging in specific boycott and divestment campaigns. Similarly, actively and passively concealing knowledge about past crimes is morally condemnable, insofar as you are capable of knowing about them – mediated by the fact that we are finite and can’t help but set personal priorities concerning how much time we can spend working on various issues.

All citations of Hegel in this post are from paragraph number 132 of the Philosophy of Right, Knox translation.

Objections: cash, jobs, and taxes

When you tell people that coal, the oil sands, and other unconventional oil and gas should be left underground, three objections come up most often:

  1. Look at how much revenue these industries produce!
  2. And so many jobs depend on them
  3. And they provide so much tax revenue

All this, they argue, means communities and governments should welcome, or at least tolerate, these industries.

I think there are four major responses to this.

1) What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen

It is easy to tot up the revenues from oil sands producers or coal mining companies, the number of people they employ, and the taxes they pay. What is less obvious but equally real is the harm these entities produce, which is not compensated for. Air and water pollution sicken and kill people, as well as harming natural ecosystems. Mining tears up and poisons the land. Greenhouse gas emissions cause warming, extreme weather, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and many other ills.

Once all the damage caused by climate change is taken into account, it seems highly likely that these businesses actually destroy more wealth and human welfare than they create, because the indirect costs overwhelm the direct benefits.

2) What is the alternative?

We cannot keep using fossil fuels forever. We will either burn them until there are none that remain to be economically extracted, or we will stop sooner because we want to limit climate change.

Either way, the global economy is eventually going to need to rely on renewable forms of energy. All the infrastructure we are building now to support fossil fuel use will eventually be redundant and useless. At the same time, the sooner we get started on building the energy system of the future, the more time we have to work out which options are best and perfect them. A longer time horizon also means we need to invest less of our total wealth per year, in order to get the same final result.

There are big opportunities to be captured in moving to a sustainable energy system, as well. We can free ourselves from dependence on fossil fuel imports, with all the geopolitical and security implications that would have. We can free ourselves from the burden of illness and death caused by fossil fuel pollution. We can live cleaner, healthier, and safer lives.

3) The risks from climate change

I am not going to exhaustively re-explain the reasons why we should be fearful of climate change. In short, we should be worried because the warming projected just from staying on our present course of increasing emissions is on the order of 5°C. That would create a world as different from the present one as the present one is different from the depth of an ice age. The human consequences of that are impossible to fully appreciate, but certain to be highly significant.

Ken Caldiera expresses this idea very effectively:

If we already had energy and transportation systems that met our needs without using the atmosphere as a waste dump for our carbon- dioxide pollution, and I told you that you could be 2% richer, but all you had to do was acidify the oceans and risk killing off coral reefs and other marine ecosystems, risk melting the ice caps with rapid sea-level rise, shifting weather patterns so that food-growing regions might not be able to produce adequate amounts of food, and so on, would you take all of that environmental risk, just to be 2% richer?

Beyond that, the warming we are creating risks kicking off positive feedback effects, which themselves produce more warming. An especially important danger is causing the permafrost and methane clathrates to melt. The methane they contain could cause another huge dose of warming, on top of what human beings produced directly. They could even kick off runaway climate change, which could make the planet permanently inhospitable to life.

4) Ethics

To enrich yourself by causing certain harm to others, and by creating terrible risks, is surely not an ethical way to comport yourself. There is no reason why future generations deserve to inherit a wrecked and imperiled planet, and it would be preferable for them to inhabit a global economy that is already moving towards making itself sustainable.

As Henry Shue argues, climate change falls within the general moral category of the infliction of harm upon the defenceless. When we undertake activities that produce massive greenhouse gas emissions, we are playing a game of Russian Roulette with the gun pointed at the head of future generations. Even if climate change proves to be less of a problem than we legitimately fear, we are behaving unethically by forcing this risk upon them without their consent, and without them having any ability whatsoever to seek recourse from us.