Jul 18, 2009

Al Gore Thinks Your Brain Is Too Primitive

For 20 years, Al Gore has been a global warming activist. He has delivered speeches, written books, starred in a documentary film, won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. But Mr. Gore has a big fat problem. Most of us have tuned out.

"Any measure that we look at shows Al Gore's losing at the moment," declared a Gallup Poll spokesperson in May. "The public is just not that concerned." When asked what they worry about, most people say the economy. Only two percent even mention the environment.

In 2007, when NBC television devoted three hours of prime time to Mr. Gore's celebrity-studded Live Earth event, the network came last in viewership that evening. Only 2.8 million people tuned in, compared to the 4.2 million who watched reruns of Cops and America's Most Wanted on Fox, and the 3.4 million who preferred the five-year-old animated movie Monsters, Inc. on ABC.

Every era has its doomsayers who bemoan some threat or another. The planet is cooling, so we'd better stockpile food. Now it's warming and catastrophe looms. Zealots who insist we must repent before it's too late are hardly a new phenomenon.

In free and democratic societies, ordinary people get to decide how much attention they pay to gloom-and-doomsters. But Mr. Gore appears to be having trouble with this concept. Instead, he's proposed a novel explanation for why the public isn't buying his message.

According to a breathless account published on a blog associated with Nature (one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals), Mr. Gore recently explained to an Oxford University conference that there are evolutionary and neurological reasons why others don't see the world the way he does.

"Gore opened by talking about human psychology and physiology" rather than climate, reports the blogger. "I was amazed to be treated to a pop neuroscience lecture." It seems that Mr. Gore now views environmental awareness as being "ultimately a problem of consciousness." Referring to MRI scans and human brain structure, he insists that "What is being tested is the proposition of whether or not the combination of an opposable thumb and a neo cortex is a viable construct on this planet."

I'm no psychologist, but this sounds to me like an attempt to apply a natural science veneer to self-serving rationalization, to invent a clinical-sounding explanation for what are, in fact, shortcomings associated with Mr. Gore's powers of persuasion.

It seems not to have crossed his mind that some of us consider his arguments flawed, his data suspect, his climate analysis simplistic, and his rhetoric overwrought. It's as though it has never occurred to Mr. Gore that, to paraphrase the title of a popular book/movie, we're just not that into him.

Nor does he appear to have considered the idea that Joe the Plumber might resent being told to desire/consume less by a man who owns three homes (including a 20-room mansion), travels by private jet, and charges $175,000 to deliver a speech. And let's not even talk about the company he keeps – such as his science advisor, James Hansen, who advocates crimes-against-humanity trials for oil executives and refers to coal-fired power plants as "factories of death."

Rather than recognizing our rejection of his worldview, Mr. Gore prefers to regard the rest of as defective. If we don't behave the way he thinks we should, there's only one explanation. Our neo cortexes are too primitive to grasp what someone of his intellect and discernment considers self-evident.


Jul 15, 2009

Global Temperatures Are Not Our Plaything

When the media reported that the leaders of the G8 had recently agreed to restrict global temperature increases, my first reaction was derision. I changed my Facebook status message to read:

1920s & 30s temps were warm. 1970s temps were cool. The 80s & 90s warmed again. Now the G8 thinks it can dictate climate within 2 degrees. Good luck with that.

The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US may well be the most powerful people on the planet. But they have as much chance of controlling global temperatures as does my rosebush.

That they would even imagine this to be possible is an indication of how bizarre the global warming discussion has gotten. Even our brightest lights have been reduced to talking gibberish.

Despite our highly educated scholars, our research facilities, and our impressive technology, where Mother Nature is concerned, we're mostly out of our depth.

I invite anyone who thinks we have the ability to control the entire climate system to consider volcanoes. Pick a volcano, any volcano, in any corner of the world. Now reflect on the fact that we don't have the ability to determine when it will erupt next.

A single volcano is beyond our power to comprehend or predict. When it does blow its top - perhaps in a contained, tourist-attraction manner or perhaps in a tidal wave of lava that steamrollers over flora and fauna, wiping out human communities and lives, it will be beyond our ability to influence.

The forces, deep within the Earth, that will spark its eruption are ancient. For the moment, they remain mysterious. There are too many factors we don't understand, too much information missing from our analyses, for us to imagine that we have any chance of controlling the way a given volcano behaves.

The larger climate system is influenced by the forces that produce earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. It is influenced by the oceans (70 percent of the globe), the jungles, and the atmosphere. Next to the interplay of all of these, a volcano is straightforward.

If we don't stand a chance against a single volcano, how can we even be having a discussion about controlling something infinitely more complex?


Jul 6, 2009

James Hansen and the Experts

In the early to mid-1990s, governments were funding workshops for supposed victims of Satanic ritual abuse, police forces were charging daycare workers with outlandish crimes, reporters were filing breathless news stories, and allegations that were simply impossible were being accepted at face value. I was among the few voices in Canadian journalism who maintained that the Satanic-ritual-abuse panic was nonsense.

The current global warming ethos reminds me of that era. No matter how foolish their declarations, global warming activists are simply taken at their word. No fact-checking is done. No contrary opinion is offered. Rather, such activists say the darndest things and smart people running prestigious publications challenge them not at all.

A great example is a recent opinion piece appearing in Yale Environment 360, a magazine published by Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. This isn't amateur hour. As an Ivy League institution, Yale is associated with "academic excellence, selectivity in admissions, and social elitism."

Dr. James Hansen, the author of the piece is question, is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He's also an environmental activist - the sort who scolds politicians on the international stage and isn't content to protest lawfully but instead embraces civil disobedience. (As the article's editor notes, "Hansen and 30 other protesters were arrested [on June 23] and charged with impeding traffic outside a Massey Energy coal site in Raleigh County, West Virginia.")

I've attended many demonstrations over the years. In my experience, the participants who feel the need to get themselves arrested aren't the calm, sensible type. Rather, these are the folks who flaunt their zeal, who lean toward fanaticism.

Rebutting every questionable assertion in Dr. Hansen's piece would be a lengthy, time-consuming process. So I'm going to restrict myself to just one sentence. The fourth paragraph from the bottom (beside the green box) begins with this line:

"Experts agree that energy efficiency and carbon-free energies can satisfy our energy needs."

Really. At this point in time, carbon-free energy sources are nowhere close to being available in large enough supply to "satisfy our energy needs." France has the cleanest energy in the world. It emits 0.3 tons of CO2 for every $1,000 in GDP. This is half what the rest of the world emits and is a result of its huge reliance on nuclear power.

But even France cannot claim that its energy needs are being met in a "carbon free" way. Dr. Hansen's declaration that this is possible for everyone is nothing more than wishful thinking. For him to further suggest that "experts agree" with him on this point is breathtaking in its audacity. The following quote appeared in Newsweek in 2007:
The global-warming debate's great un-mentionable is this: we lack the technology to get from here to there. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 doesn't mean it can happen. At best, we might curb emissions growth.

Consider a 2006 study from the International Energy Agency. With present policies, it projected that carbon-dioxide emissions…would more than double by 2050…The IEA then simulated an aggressive, global program to cut emissions based on the best available technologies: more solar, wind and biomass; more-efficient cars, appliances and buildings; more nuclear. Under this admitted fantasy, global emissions in 2050 would still slightly exceed 2003 levels. [emphasis added]
In other words, International Energy Agency experts are rather at odds with Dr. Hansen's assertion. Nor are they alone. A 2008 study study regarding British government plans to increase dependence on wind power sounded a note of caution. According to the lead author:
Wind power does not obviate the need for fossil fuel plants, which will continue to be indispensable. The problem is that wind power volatility requires fossil fuel plants to be switched on and off, which damages them and means that even more plants will have to be built. Carbon savings will be less than expected…Neither these extra costs nor the increased carbon production are being taken into account in government figures for wind power. [emphasis added]
So let's repeat Dr. Hansen's claim one more time:

"Experts agree that energy efficiency and carbon-free energies can satisfy our energy needs."

Actually, given the green energy technologies currently available to us, carbon-free energy sources are unlikely to meet our needs anytime soon. Indeed, a number of experts appear to consider this next to impossible.

When Dr. Hansen blithely states that "experts agree" with his rosy views regarding the availability of carbon-free energy, he's implying that anyone who holds a different opinion simply does not exist. Such is the quality of thinking demonstrated by the man who's known as Al Gore's science advisor.


>> James Hansen drags NASA into his personal politics
>> NASA's mistaken glacier info
>> The big picture: the Y2K lesson

Jul 2, 2009

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Greens reject the scientific consensus on genetically modified foods

In the global warming debate, those of us who are skeptical that catastrophic climate change is just around the corner are repeatedly bludgeoned with the cudgel of "scientific consensus." We're told that thousands of scientists, under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have examined all the evidence and made a decision. We're reminded that prestigious scientific bodies endorse the idea of man-made global warming - and that the best scientific journals do, as well.

Don't we understand the debate is over? That science has spoken? That challenging the theory of global warming is on a par with believing that the moon landings were faked?

Over and over again we're advised that this "scientific consensus" trumps all else. Greenpeace tells us this. So do its activist pals, Friends of the Earth.

Except that neither of these groups display one bit of respect for scientific consensus when the topic isn't global warming but is instead genetically modified foods. The consensus that such foods are safe for humans, animals and the environment is extraordinarily broad-based. Indeed, one might argue that the list of scientific bodies that agree on this point is longer than the list of organizations that concur with global warming theory.

On June 28th, scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) joined this consensus. They ruled that there is no reason to forbid the planting of genetically-modified corn in the European Union.

How did Greenpeace respond? It so happens that Greenpeace opposes genetically modified foods for philosophical reasons. It argues that, no matter what humanity might gain from biotechnology (such as drought-resistant crops, blindness-preventing rice and medical discoveries) these aren't sufficient "justification to turn the environment into a giant genetic experiment by commercial interests."

So rather than being swayed by "scientific consensus," Greenpeace chose to attack. It says the scientists who made this decision are unqualified. "Allowing EFSA to express opinions on GM crops while it cannot assess long-term environmental impacts is like allowing someone into a Formula 1 race just because they have a driving license," says Marco Contier.

The response by Friends of the Earth was even more disturbing. Its spokesperson, Helen Holder, isn't fazed by the fact most scientists appear to support genetically modified organisms [GMOs]. "It's time to sack the EFSA scientists, to disband its GMO panel, and move GMO risk assessment" into the hands of a different decision-making body she says.

In other words, because they disagree with her, she thinks these scientists should all lose their jobs – and that their organization should not only be restructured, but stripped of its responsibilities. A tad harsh, don't you think?

So it turns out that "scientific consensus" appears to be meaningless to these folks. When it suits them, they'll use it as a club to beat people like me into submission. Otherwise, they're fully prepared to ignore its existence. Which is something worth thinking about.

And here's one more thought. Skeptics are sometimes accused of being conspiracy theorists. Why would so many scientists go along with the idea of global warming if it weren't true, we're asked? Is it really plausible that so many people would sign on if they weren't absolutely convinced it were happening?

Well, if you were a scientist who knew that your honestly-held belief would get you bad-mouthed in the media by aggressive environmental groups, might you not be tempted to go with the flow? If you knew that expressing certain views would result in people loudly attacking your credentials and calling for your dismissal, might you not take the path of least resistance, too?