Category Archives: The media

Why ‘ethical oil’ may be an own goal

Don’t tell him, but I think Ezra Levant’s whole ‘ethical oil’ concept might be a psychological own goal for the people trying to promote the unrestricted growth of Canada’s oil sands.

The intent of the campaign is to draw attention to ethical abuses connected to oil from sources outside Canada. For instance, the lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia. For people who are already convinced that Canadian oil is A-OK, the contrast between the appeal of buying oil from ‘good’ Canadian companies rather than ‘bad’ foreign companies or governments seems stark.

The reason why I think the slogan may be self-defeating is that by trying to draw attention away from arguments that Canadian oil is itself unethical, it reinforces the point that the choices we make about energy are ethical choices, not mere consumer choices. If you have come to accept buying fossil fuel as a perfectly ordinary part of life, with no more thought accorded to it than to buying a pack of gum or a bus token, seeing a blaring campaign about how Canada’s oil is ethical while oil from elsewhere is not may bring to mind the very arguments that the campaign is seeking to discredit.

Plenty of people are aware of how problematic our society’s dependence on oil is. They are also aware of the dubious business dealings and environmental damage associated with all oil companies, including those in Canada’s oil sands. Oil companies are bad neighbours. When operating normally, they produce air and water pollution that saturates the world with toxic and cancer-causing chemicals. When something goes wrong, they cause catastrophic accidents that end human lives and spoil large areas of nature. Their operations and product are also inescapably linked with climate change. They profit while the people downstream and downwind suffer.

Reminding people that oil is an ethical issue may end up encouraging those with a balanced view to make less use of it and search more energetically for alternatives. To put it briefly, the oil industry loses when oil gets discussed as an ethical matter; for them, it is much better when people see oil amorally as an essential enabler for things they value doing like driving cars and flying in airplanes.

One side note about ‘ethical oil’ – one of their standard photo ops is to get a couple of women to wear black body-covering garments in the style of a burqa in front of environmental protests. The people being photographed often have a sign suggesting that OPEC is pleased by environmental protests, since they restrict hydrocarbon development in North America and keep the continent dependent on imports. On one level, these protests seem like fair comment on the oppressive government policies in some major oil-producing states. At the same time, it seems possible that the intention behind the protest is to take advantage of xenophobic or anti-Muslim sentiment. Appealing to the moral sentiment that women should not be subjugated by their governments is one thing, but using Islamophobia to try to discredit your opponents is much less morally upright.

2011 Richard Casement application

I decided to be a bit bold in my submission to this year’s Richard Casement internship at The Economist. They are seeking “a would-be journalist to spend three months of the summer working on the newspaper in London, writing about science and technology”. Every year, they get hundreds of applications. Back in 2007, I applied with an article on hashing algorithms. This time, I decided to call them out a bit on the contradiction between their general acceptance of the need to do something about climate change with their refusal to prioritize decarbonization over immediate economic growth. If humanity really is flirting with disaster, surely climate change mitigation should be a top political priority. My submission to this year’s competition is below.

Carbon stocks and flows
The magnitude of the climate change problem

To date, domestic and international policies intended to mitigate climate change have focused on controlling annual greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol called upon developed states to reduce their annual emissions by set amounts below their 1990 levels, and carbon trading systems like the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme focus on exchanging the right to emit a set amount of pollution in a particular year.

All this may seem sensible enough, given that the fundamental problem of human-induced climate change is that greenhouse gas emissions may dangerously alter the functioning of the climate system. At the same time, a well-informed band of individuals centred around NASA climatologist James Hansen argue that the focus on annual emissions may be misleading and likely to produce problematic policy. Hansen argues that since carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) endures for so long in the atmosphere, the most important consideration in determining how much the planet will warm is what proportion of the world’s reserves of coal, oil, and gas countries allow their firms and citizens to burn. If humanity burns most of the fuels that remain, Hansen argues, the climatic consequences would likely be catastrophic. And yet, governments are not yet advancing credible plans for leaving much of the world’s remaining fossil fuels underground:

“[I]f coal emissions are phased out entirely and unconventional fossil fuels are prohibited, fossil fuel emissions in 2050 will be somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of emissions in 2008. In other words, the reserves of conventional oil and gas are already enough to take emissions up to the maximum levels [of acceptable warming] that governments have agreed on.”

If policy-makers took Hansen’s perspective seriously, climate change policies would look rather different. They would be focused specifically on driving a transition to post-carbon sources of energy, while limiting exploitation of fossil fuels. Rather than being seen as a potential job and royalty bonanza, newly discovered fossil fuel reserves would be seen as tangible risks to humanity, given how they embody the potential to shift the Earth’s climate into dangerous territory. Hansen points to estimates made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the total quantity of coal, conventional oil and gas, and unconventional oil and gas on Earth. Of these reserves, coal and unconventional oil and gas are estimated to be the largest by far, and therefore to represent the largest share of humanity’s climate-changing potential. As such, the key question concerning the effect humanity will have on the planet’s future is how much of the coal, unconventional oil, and unconventional gas people choose to burn.

Hansen describes a dreadful scenario which could take place if humanity goes on to burn most of the coal and unconventional fuel that remains. Over and above the warming that those gases would cause directly, additional warming could arise from the operation of positive feedback effects within the climate system. These include Arctic permafrost melting and releasing planet-warming methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. They also include the drying out and burning of forests, and potential release from sub-sea methane deposits called clathrates. If warming fed on itself in these ways, Hansen argues that the Earth could experience a runaway greenhouse effect and experience a transformation akin to that of Venus – a planet that is thought to have had liquid water on the surface, but which now experiences temperatures of over 350°C.

If this runaway scenario is at all plausible, the choices governments make in the coming decades could have a monumental impact on the future of humanity. In the face of such a risk, some would even question whether the focus governments and citizens maintain on economic growth is appropriate, or whether humanity ought to be making an all-out effort to shift the energy basis of the global economy from fossil fuels to a portfolio of low- and zero-carbon options. Avoiding the worst possibilities associated with uncontrolled climate change may require the global economy to largely move beyond fossil fuels by 2050, replacing the unsustainable energy basis that has dominated since 1750 with one that carries less risk and is based upon inexhaustible sources of power.

They probably won’t get many submissions that challenge their editorial stance to the same extent. In addition to being a worthwhile undertaking in itself, it might help mine stand out from among the others.

Cary critiques Wente, in parting

The Economist is far from being the only newspaper to consistently print misleading things about climate change. Canada’s Globe and Mail sometimes gives them a run for their money, particularly with columns by Rex Murphy and Margaret Wente.

Anthony Cary – who has spent the past four years as the British High Commissioner to Canada, and is now leaving – responded today to Wente’s recent piece on the Cancun climate change negotiations:

I return to London this week after four years as British High Commissioner. It has been a privilege to serve in this great country.

My one sadness is that, over that period, Canada has still not got to grips with the climate issue. Margaret Wente’s wearily predictable commentary on the outcome of Cancun (Great News from Cancun! – Dec. 14) reminds me of why progress has been so difficult. She is at once illogical (because the goal is “a very long way off,” it is hubristic to begin the journey), unfunnily sarcastic (“King Canute, come on down”) and content to jeer from the sidelines. If, as she predicts, the world will some day be powered by clean energy, that will not come about by accident but because people choose to make it happen.

If Ms. Wente’s goal is to provoke debate, she can feel well pleased with herself. But her satisfaction comes at a heavy price for her country and the world. Each year that we delay the long transition to low carbon, we force up the economic and human cost of it.

It is much appreciated when respected people lend their eloquence and authority to the cause of combatting climate change. It is an issue where weak thinking often prevails in both the media and public debate, and where every convincing corrective has value for all those who will deal with the consequences of our rapidly changing climate.

Unfortunately, it seems most likely that Wente will take the letter as evidence that her thoughts are sufficiently profound to attract the interest of people in high places. In fact, her analysis is so cringe-worthy that I always have to brace myself a little before plunging into her latest column.

Retaking ‘green’

In the eyes of advertisers, all that is necessary for a product to be ‘green’ is for there to be another product out there that is worse according to some environmental measure. As such, a gigantic pickup truck might be ‘green’ as long as it is a hybrid, or it has recycled plastic in the interior. This use of the word strips it of meaning and turns it into nothing more than a vague label designed to help sell things to people who try to be ethically conscious.

I think it is possible to use the word ‘green’ in a much more rigorous and meaningful way. Specifically, it can be used to refer to technologies, products, and undertakings that are fundamentally sustainable: those that can be made use of forever. As such, a ‘green’ fishery would be one where the catch rate could be sustained indefinitely; a ‘green’ forestry project would be one where trees were cut at the same rate as others matured; and so on.

These sorts of ‘green’ technologies will often require a melange of old and new, in their approaches. For instance, one of the best ways to encourage the emergence of green fisheries is to restrict the use of modern gear. If fishers could only operate using wooden sailing ships (with modern safety gear), a lot of the pressure would be removed from the world’s marine ecosystems, and then would have a better chance of being able to endure the constant demands of humanity. Similarly, green agricultural will probably involve some ancient techniques that preceded the mechanization and artificial fertilizer that have accompanied the explosion of fossil fuels into human life. At the same time, green systems on a planet of seven billion will need to incorporate innovative technologies: innovative mechanisms for turning wind and sunlight into power, new means of transmitting and using that energy efficiently, and perhaps eventually exotic technologies like space-based solar power or nuclear fusion.

By this standard of ‘green’ there aren’t many green things on Earth at the moment. That said, it is true by definition that the future of humanity depends on ‘greening’ in this sense. We need to find a way to live within the bounds of the physical world, both in terms of the resources we consume and the wastes that we produce. A green world is one in which human beings will be able to survive and flourish indefinitely.

The Economist doesn’t understand climate change

From what I have seen of academia and government, The Economist is one of the most widely-read and influential news publications out there. Keeping on top of what they report upon and argue was a necessary task for a university-level debater. It also helps avoid surprises when dealing with academics and bureaucrats. If The Economist gives a national leader a nickname, you can be sure there will be much scurrying that results among both bureaucrats and political staff.

That reputation and influence makes it all the more regrettable that The Economist doesn’t understand climate change. They concur that the key science is settled, that climate change is happening, and that action should be taken in response. They support the creation of carbon taxes. At the same time, they don’t recognize the magnitude of the problem, and they haven’t adapted their general editorial stance to properly take it into account. For them, climate change is a potentially important sideshow – it is not the key phenomenon determining the future of humanity.

That is odd, given their general appreciation for science and the clarity of the messages scientists are sending. Right now, we are on track to warm the planet by more than 5°C by 2100 – as much of a difference in mean global temperature as there is between the present climate and the one that prevailed at the middle of the last ice age. And yet, The Economist seems to believe that following this business-as-usual path wouldn’t have a major effect on the ongoing process of economic growth, which they are unflinching supporters of. The fact that we are profoundly altering things like sea levels and precipitation patterns in ways that will endure for thousands of years is apparently less important than what the global GDP growth figure for the next couple of years will be.

For humanity to have a prosperous future, we need to stop the climate from changing so much that it undermines human welfare and prosperity. Given the inescapable link between burning fossil fuels and climate change, achieving that goal will require moving to other sources of energy and leaving most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels unburned. The Economist certainly has not recognized this – nor have they recognized the danger of catastrophic or runaway climate change if humanity keeps burning coal, oil, and gas heedlessly. Because of that, they still think that it will be possible to adapt to climate change even if no success is found in mitigating it. They commit the error of making fun of renewable sources of energy, just because they represent a small portion of humanity’s total energy use today. Ultimately, only renewable forms of energy can be relied upon to serve human needs indefinitely. The fact that they remain a niche energy source is cause for concern – not a reason to believe we can keep relying on fossil fuels forever.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for the worst effects of climate change to become visible, before The Economist will start taking the full range of risks seriously. By the time the droughts, storms, and flooded coastlines are fully visible, it will be far too late to prevent even more serious and widespread effects. For now, The Economist remains in denial. They have accepted the fact that human beings are warming the planet in threatening ways, but the implications of those facts have not yet flowed through all the channels of their thinking and marinated their ideology.

Indeed, I suspect that ideology is the main problem here. The fundamental worldview of The Economist is libertarian. They believe that consenting adults can make agreements between themselves that provide benefits without harming everyone else. Governments need to step in and regulate in circumstances where private agreements cause public harm. The problem with climate change is that – since so many different activities contribute to it – governments effectively need to regulate all significant private agreements, at least insofar as they involve the production of greenhouse gases. Because The Economist is unwilling to accept such a broad mandate for government, they cannot recognize the scope of the problem being faced.

Given where the world is right now, it is not enough to just call for a carbon tax and then get back to the business of encouraging growth. If the choice is between a world with both growth and unlimited climate change and another with neither growth nor climate change, the latter is preferable for humanity as a whole, despite how it would involve major sacrifices both from those who are already affluent and those who are trying to escape from extreme poverty. Maintaining a climate that is compatible with human welfare and prosperity has over-arching moral and economic importance. Given how massively the world’s governments and corporations are failing to achieve that aim, The Economist should be calling for non-violent resistance, the blocking of rail lines to coal plants, and the pulling of investment from fossil fuel companies.

Until they begin to propose a response to climate change that is proportionate to the risk it involves, they will be doing a disservice to all those who rely upon their analysis and advice.

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.

Sources with an agenda

One of the more dubious experiments ever performed was undertaken by Pyramid Power Magazine. Subscribers were recruited to put dull razorblades inside wire pyramids and assess whether they became sharper as a result; other subscribers were told to do the same with cubes. To nobody’s surprise, subscribers of Pyramid Power Magazine provided data showing that pyramids have beneficial effects.

This is an extreme example of a general tendency among media sources: some at least try to maintain a reputation for impartiality, though it can be hilariously ill-deserved as with the “fair and balanced” coverage of Fox News. Others have a clear editorial line. The most dubious bunch have a specific agenda, but do not announce it.

The agenda of BuryCoal is self-evident. That being said, I don’t think that is cause to dismiss the site. For one thing, the reasoning behind the editorial stance is clearly spelled out and open to questioning from anyone. As editor, I can genuinely say that if I am ever convinced that climate change can be addressed without leaving most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels underground, I will either alter or leave the project. Unfortunately, the physics and chemistry are both very clear. You cannot burn fossil fuels without producing greenhouse gases, including CO2. And doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere warms the planet by about 3°C. Almost certainly, that means we are heading for major problems, unless humanity radically alters the energy investments it is making, and thus the emissions path that will result.

Right now, the idea that humanity will not burn all the fossil fuels on Earth can probably be fairly described as ‘fringe.’ Most politicians seem to be either unaware of it or unwilling to mention it in public. Even many committed environmentalists who I meet argue that it is impossible. The first stage in properly evaluating the idea is reaching the point where policy-makers and citizens are aware of it. Then, we can confirm whether the approach is the appropriate one and work out the ideal means of achieving the necessary ends, within a timeframe that avoids catastrophe, and while securing as many co-benefits as possible.