Jun 19, 2009

Slurs, Smears & Money

The debate about global warming is a nasty one. Anonymous people calling other people "climate criminals" online. Scientists getting watchlisted on Greenpeace's ExxonSecrets website even when they deny categorically any association with any oil company.

Accusations, as we all know, are not proof. Everyone has a right to be presumed innocent - especially when being accused by anonymous individuals on the Internet.

With so many aspersions being cast so casually, separating fact from fiction is difficult. Is it possible some scientists have accepted research funding from oil companies and that their conclusions were improperly influenced? Absolutely. But does that mean all of their work - including research conducted beforehand or ten years later - should be disregarded? Does it mean that nothing they might say is worth listening to?

Hard-core environmentalists frequently advise people like me (who insist on hearing all sides of the global warming debate) to "follow the money." All right then. Let's do that.

Al Gore's speaking fee is $175,000. If financial gain isn't part of his motivation, why doesn't he deliver the same speech for, say, $50,000? That way, audiences inspired by his talk could use the remaining $125,000 to do good things for the environment in their own communities.

Greenpeace (which would receive fewer public donations if it weren't constantly hyping the fragility of the planet) makes a huge deal about the fact that ExxonMobil donated $2.2 million to the Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank between 1998 and 2006. This works out to less than $250,000 annually for nine years. These are, by the way, the only hard numbers in Greenpeace's lengthy ExxonSecrets FAQ.

Let's compare those numbers to the funding received by people whose research happens to align with the theory of global warming. Back in 2000, Daniel Sarewitz observed that the US federal government was spending $1.8 billion annually on the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program. That's one initiative, in one country, in one year.

On some level, people employed by such programs know they might be out of a job if they all wake up one morning and declare climate change to be a minor phenomenon unworthy of concern. Do we really suppose this fact never influences their research?

Which takes us back to Greenpeace. According to its annual report, it spent $40 million in US dollars on climate-change-related campaigns in 2007, up 11% from the previous year. In the space of two years, then, one environmental group amongst dozens spent $70 million on activities intended to persuade all of us - including climate scientists - that global warming is a crisis.

And it has the nerve to whine about the improper influence Exxon might have exerted when it spent a measly half-million in a similar time frame? 140 to 1. That's the skew we're talking about here. It appears that, when it beats up on little kids in the playground, Greenpeace thinks those kids should have both hands tied behind their back and be blindfolded, too.

It gets worse. In August 2007, Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson, sharply criticized a cover story his magazine had run the previous week:

If you missed NEWSWEEK's story, here's the gist. A "well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change."

Coincidentally, this isn't just a fair summation of the article, it encapsulates nicely Greenpeace's ExxonSecrets FAQ. Trouble is, as Samuelson points out, that narrative is "fundamentally misleading."

There are practical, real-world reasons, writes Samuelson, why advanced economies cannot quickly switch from one kind of energy source to another. Any news story that scapegoats skeptical scientists is "peripheral and highly contrived." He continues:
NEWSWEEK implied, for example, that ExxonMobil used a think tank to pay academics to criticize global-warming science. Actually, this accusation was long ago discredited, and NEWSWEEK shouldn't have lent it respectability. The company says it knew nothing of the global-warming grant, which involved issues of climate modeling. And its 2006 contribution to the think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, was small: $240,000 out of a $28 million budget.) [emphasis added]
The fact that a neutral third party considers allegations of this type less-than-credible hasn't discouraged Greenpeace from using them, to this day, to justify its ExxonSecrets watchlist website. (Like Roman Catholic hardliners with their Index of banned books, climate idealogues appear to consider this list of those-to-whom-thou-shalt-not-lend-thine-ear to be the final word.)

It's time to end this foolishness. Between them, governments, charitable foundations and environmental organizations spend billions - that's a "B" - of dollars each year on research and educational campaigns that start from the premise that life as we know it is endangered by global warming.

The notion that scientific research and public debate has been unduly influenced by Exxon's relatively puny expenditures is a sick joke.

When I was 19, I joined a peace group protesting American cruise missile testing over Canada's north. Back then we'd daydream about a world in which schools were adequately funded while the military was required to hold bake sales.

In the climate debates, one side is, indeed, lavishly funded. The skeptics, meanwhile, are making rice krispie squares.


Jun 12, 2009

The Wrong Trousers (Common Ground on Kyoto Between Climate Change Skeptics & Believers)

I recently re-watched the Academy Award-winning animated short Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers. Like other titles produced by the Aardman Animations company, the film is non-stop eye-candy.

My reason for re-visiting it is a 2007 paper authored by a pair of professors from Oxford University and the London School of Economics. Titled The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy, this 47-page document accepts the premise that dangerous global warming has, indeed, commenced and that the planet faces long-term harmful consequences as a result.

Personally, I consider said premise debatable. But that's a separate issue. The professors, Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, say they purposely named their paper after the Wallace & Gromit film. In their view, the mechanical trousers that start out as a cool invention but end up kidnapping Wallace, are an apt metaphor for the Kyoto Protocol.

Their main argument: "the Kyoto Protocol has also marched us involuntarily to unintended and unwelcome places."

Their writing is intelligent and eloquent. It's also direct. Kyoto, they say, was always a "fundamentally flawed" instrument that "was doomed from birth." Due to its single-minded focus on reducing emissions, they feel Kyoto made discussing other responses to climate change "taboo." Kyoto has assumed the status of "creed" and "dogma" they say and, as a result, the world has "wasted fifteen years."

Their paper is a fabulous demonstration of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It also reveals that there's plenty of common ground between individuals who believe dangerous global warming is occurring and those who remain unconvinced.

Like Prins and Rayner, many climate skeptics believe our focus should shift to adaptation. Encouraging populations to prepare for the risks associated with droughts, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis is guaranteed to save lives - since such events will continue to be facts of life irrespective of global warming.

Like many skeptics, Prins and Rayner argue that Kyoto's emission-reduction targets were always too low to have had any significant impact on the big picture. Moreover, their paper demonstrates that, while some countries have worked hard to meet their Kyoto obligations, these efforts have been neutralized by other factors.

For example, because the European Union allowed national governments to distribute unlimited carbon emission permits:

"European governments did what governments seeking popular approval always do, namely look after their own national interests. They therefore issued permits to European industry to the value of more than the then estimated total European carbon emission...There were many guilty parties. But the worst culprit was the Italian government, which showered this free subsidy onto Italian industry on a heroic scale (close to the total estimate for all of Europe). The carbon price crashed from over 30 Euros/ton to 20 cents in the spring of 2006."

It's sobering for the authors to admit - and for us to read - that:

"The failure of Kyoto in its own terms is most eloquently attested by the finding that the (working) Montreal Protocol on CFC reductions may have had a larger net physical impact on the greenhouse effect as an incidental consequence, than Kyoto would have had if it had been fully implemented. Perhaps even more startling is that the Bush Administration’s “Methane to markets” programme, launched before the Kyoto Protocol was activated, may have done more to reduce emissions than all of Kyoto."

A meeting is scheduled for this December in Copenhagen. Its purpose is to help establish international policies to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. In tune with climate skeptics, Prins and Rayner are adamant that more of the same is not the answer.

But here's the problem. More of the same is exactly what's being promoted loudly by activist groups. Greenpeace Canada is running a campaign called KYOTOplus. The petition Canadians are urged to sign targets emissions exclusively. As usual, Greenpeace's language is apocalyptic:

"Global warming is the greatest threat to life on earth...only urgent action can avert uncontrollable, runaway climate change."

According to the US-based Environmental Defense Fund's website, four elements are critical with respect to the Copenhagen meeting: "The first is clarity on how far industrialized countries are willing and able to cut their emissions, and the second is what developing countries are willing and able to do. The third is clarity on what financing will be available to support developing nations, and the fourth is a governance framework for implementing the agreement."

In other words: emissions, emissions, emissions, emissions.

Friends of the Earth International has its own website petition regarding the Copenhagen meeting. It calls on governments of the rich world to do three things:
  1. cut emissions by "at least 40%" by 2020
  2. refrain from purchasing carbon credits or offsets from the developing world
  3. finance clean energy solutions in poorer countries and help such countries cope "with the floods, droughts and famines caused by climate change"

While the final clause in the final point is encouraging, it's clearly an afterthought. The main focus is dramatic emission cuts over an unrealistically short period of time.

It's difficult not to sympathize with Prins and Rayner. Like skeptics, they find themselves at odds with activists who remain deaf to reasoned argument and new perspectives. Like skeptics they, too, worry about the consequences should their efforts to change minds fail:

"Both writers of this essay began to be engaged with the issue of climate change in the mid-1980s when the task was to gain any audience at all for the discussion...Today, we find that we are like coachmen on a runaway stage-coach, trying to rein back bolting horses, crying “Whoa! Whoa!” before an accident happens."