Dec 20, 2009

Global Disaster Is So 1976

The mass media has spent the past several years - and, in particular, the past few weeks - scaring the wits out of little kids around the world. It's been telling them the Earth is in imminent danger of environmental collapse, that they live on a planet in peril, that the Copenhagen UN-sponsored climate summit was our last chance to avert disaster.

But as adults of a certain age know, we've heard this all before. Above is a 1976 paperback (click the image for a larger view) titled RIO: Reshaping the International Order. Thirty-three years ago there was no climate change crisis. Then, the concerns were over-population, Third World poverty, and nuclear weapons. Nevertheless we were told there was an urgent need to win a "global race for survival" and that Westerners would need to "give up" aspects of their affluent lifestyles in order to make this happen.

Below is a closer view of similar cheery titles from the same publisher: (click to enlarge)

That's right, folks. Back in 1976, people were yammering on about the "global disaster facing humanity," about "worldwide catastrophe" in our "near future," about how we'd end up extinct if we didn't stop being so greedy and environmentally irresponsible.

Page 36 of the RIO volume talks about "safeguarding the interests of future generations through the legacy of a habitable planet." Page 84 declares that "Many aspects of Western life have become wasteful and senseless and do not contribute to peoples' real happiness." On page 90, it says rich countries should "place a ceiling on meat consumption," "promote the use of public transit," define an official benchmark and then "declare that all consumption beyond not only waste but a conscious action against the welfare of large numbers of poor and disprivileged, their own children, and the prospects for a peaceful world."

In 1976 it was being implied, as does the writer Thomas Friedman today, that China was superior to us since it had allegedly "shown that development can be built around people and geared to meeting their needs" (page 97). Then, as now, we were assured we had a savior: "the United Nations remains the only real machinery with the potential for constructing a fairer world" (p. 124).

Despite the fact that most people hadn't yet imagined powerful and liberating technologies such as home computers, the Internet, cell phones, and consumer GPS devices, readers in 1976 were warned against indulging in "wild and totally unwarranted technological optimism" (pp. 199, 373). Finally, then, as now, we were advised that: "Radical action is urgently needed" (p. 371) in order to stave off "threats of imminent disaster" (p. 375).

Attention professional doomsayers: just cool it, OK? Stop giving little kids nightmares.


>> We Have Heard This Rhetoric Before

Dec 19, 2009

Science Says: Hop on One Foot

Vanity Fair's coverage of President Obama's visit to the Copenhagen climate conference is chock-a-block with the usual silliness. The summit, we're told, was "widely regarded as humanity’s last good chance to preserve a livable climate."

The term "catastrophic climate change" is used twice, with a reference to "catastrophic impacts" thrown in for good measure. We're warned about "mass extinctions" without anyone pointing out that species extinctions are normal and have occurred frequently on planet Earth. We're told glaciers might melt without anyone acknowledging that glaciers were advancing and receding long before industrial pollution was a twinkle in a capitalist's eye.

There are two quotes from Greenpeace, one from the Center for Biological Diversity, one from a scientist associated with the Stockholm Environment Institute, one from author/activist Bill McKibben (see my recent post on said gentleman), and another from a person who advises the German government on environmental issues.

In other words, we're bashed over the head with the perspective of a tiny sliver of the population - people whose careers depend on the view that human-caused global warming is a crisis.

There isn't a single quote in this article from a skeptical scientist, economist, or policy analyst. Nor is there any hint that some smart people who think global warming is a problem nevertheless consider emissions cuts a wrong-headed approach that's doomed to failure. (For example, see here and here.)

Most disturbing however, is that this 1,200 word article contains four separate slimy attempts to justify certain views as being determined by science and therefore not open to debate. We read that:
  1. certain policies are "what science says is required to avoid catastrophic climate change"
  2. "science says reductions of at least 25 to 40 percent are necessary"
  3. such and such is "consistent with what science demands"
  4. there's a need "to set a science-based national pollution cap" [bold added by me]
Unlike the childhood game, Simon Says, in which a particular course of action is dictated by the person playing the role of Simon, science rarely proscribes any one response.

First of all, science is performed by human beings - who are fallible. All science, therefore, has the potential to be biased and mistaken. When scientists observe, they make choices about what is worth noticing and what is not. When they calculate, they choose to employ one mathematical approach rather than another. When they write reports, they highlight some issues while sidelining others.

All these decisions, choices, assumptions and biases are part of the process that produces what we think of as scientific knowledge. There is no God of Science reaching down from the heavens with THE TRUTH carved into stone tablets.

Second, while scientific investigation can produce certain facts, even when we have full confidence in the accuracy of those facts we must still choose how to respond to them.

Do we put our faith in high-tech to solve our energy problems over the next few decades before matters become acute? Do we reinforce sea walls and levees? Do we make huge efforts to ensure clean and adequate water supplies in the Third World in order to minimize drought-related harm? Or do we continue to put pretty much all our eggs in one basket by pursuing grandiose international Kyoto-style emissions treaties - even when there's little evidence that such treaties accomplish anything?

There are always a variety of responses to any given situation. These responses - whether at the local, national or international levels - should be examined, debated, and negotiated out in the open. We all deserve a voice in these discussions. We should all participate in making these choices.

Science does not tell us what to do. When political activists insist otherwise, they are attempting to preempt important discussions, to silence our voices, to substitute their own views for those of the community.

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Dec 15, 2009

Bill McKibben: Extravagant Emotional Excess

A few weeks ago I read Bill McKibben's 1989 book, The End of Nature. It's considered the first mainstream book on global warming and is, one presumes, part of the reason McKibben is a revered environmental guru.

I discuss that book in this blog post (see the section appearing in navy-colored text, midway through). What surprised me, as a newcomer to McKibben's work, is how utterly emotional his arguments are. Yes, he cites scientists and their research, but the book is first and foremost a philosophical/spiritual/highly emotive treatise. As I observed in my earlier post:
McKibben talks incessantly about his feelings of "sadness." In one paragraph, he uses that word four times (see pages 60, 68, 72, 73, 74, 160, 162). He also tells us about his other emotional responses to environmental questions:
  • grief (p.73)
  • loneliness (76, 144)
  • fretfulness (86)
  • fear, panic and nervousness (89, 175)
  • revulsion (147)
  • depression (182)
(The page numbers refer to the 2006 US paperback edition.)

There's a reason the term "cheap emotionalism" came into being. It's used by people who try to manipulate - rather than rationally persuade. And although it works well on teenaged girls, most grownups are less than impressed by it.

Smart, thoughtful people value dispassionate investigation, careful and systematic analysis, and logical arguments. But McKibben seems to think we should listen to him because he cares. Because he cries.

Yesterday he authored a guest blog while attending the Copenhagen climate conference. It appeared on a website associated with the Center for American Progress. (Actually, it's a reprint from the Mother Jones website, dated the day before - which makes this worse. Not one, but two separate publications judged this missive worthy of their readers' limited attention.)

I don't mean to be unkind, but this post is embarrassing. Second paragraph, first line:
"This afternoon I sobbed for an hour, and I’m still choking a little."
Third paragraph, first line (about a church service he attended):
"But my tears started before anyone said a word."
Fifth paragraph, first line:
"I cried all the harder a few minutes later when the great cathedral bell began slowly tolling..."
Sixth paragraph, first line:
"And these tears were now sweet as well as bitter..."
The eighth (and final) paragraph mentions his tears in its first sentence, too.

Bill, hon, it's time to pull yourself together. Take a vacation - maybe even some medication. And please stop imagining that your tears have the power to change the mind of anyone with a working brain.


Dec 14, 2009

ClimateGate Links

For someone like moi, who's been researching the global warming debate for several months, the past few weeks have been especially fascinating. The ClimateGate files, apparently released into the public domain on November 13, began receiving widespread notice on Nov. 20th.

Since then, it's been a non-stop whirlwind as bloggers have examined these files, the prominent climate scientists in the purloined e-mails have attempted damage control, and political partisans have spun this development to the far reaches of the solar system and back.

The widespread discussion of these matters is a marvelous thing. So is the multiplicity of voices taking part. But it can be tough for someone unconnected to this debate to get a handle on the controversy.

Below is a list of links worth taking a look at. Because ClimateGate's real impact won't be fully understood for some years, anything written within the first few weeks is highly preliminary. Nevertheless, some of the main themes are already evident.

  • the 1,073 e-mails may be read or searched here

  • Global warming with the lid off
    -this Wall Street Journal editorial highlights some of the most serious concerns

  • Tom Fuller's coverage in the San Francisco Examiner is thorough, sober-minded, and even-handed. This article links to all 7 parts of a series he wrote as the ClimateGate story began to unfold. Highly recommended.

  • Special Investigation: Climate change email row deepens as Russians admit they DID come from their Siberian server
    -don't be misled by the headline, this is a solid view of the larger story

  • Climategate peer review: science red in tooth and claw
    -"Claiming lack of peer review was once a reasonable weapon in scientists’ [arsenal]...After climategate, all can see that this line of logic is as effective as a paper sword."

  • Global warming, loyalty oaths, and Climategate's smoking gun
    -"These scientists wrote a report for politicians everywhere. The report was paid for and backed by the United Nations...These scientists, to promote their personal viewpoint, hid evidence that global warming couldn't be judged as accurately as all of their statements indicated."

  • Data horribilia: the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file
    -some of the color commentary here may be over-the-top, but this paints a picture of a junior computer programmer struggling mightily to make sense of poorly-documented data analysis tools. Although he works hard to keep his work logically consistent, he eventually appears to throw up his hands and to make changes he knows are questionable - in order to produce results he knows are expected. If this is how world-class climate data gets produced, we all need to be very worried.

  • Scientists are not software engineers
    -"Arguably, these are the most important computer programs in the world...[and they are] complete and utter train wrecks."

  • More on Climategate
    -"The closed-mindedness of these supposed men of science, their willingness to go to any lengths to defend a preconceived message, is surprising even to me. The stink of intellectual corruption is overpowering. "

  • Why the GlimateGate controversy matters
    -"If the phrase ‘an informed citizenry’ is to be more than a pious and empty sentiment, we need to make rational decisions with all the evidence available. If we are to give our consent to dramatic changes in public policy, we need to know all the weaknesses of a hypothesis."

  • Climate-change - a story too often told the same way
    -This article rambles a little, but contains solid analysis: "So science was not speaking with one voice on the matter. It only seemed to be, because the media, on the whole, was giving no other story. Then this Climate Research Unit thing happened, and it was the end of the monologue."


Dec 13, 2009

Copenhagen Banner: Scrap Capitalism

Above is a screen-grab from the CTV news website (associated with "Canada's largest private broadcaster"). I copied it at 5 pm on December 12th. Half an hour later, this particular photograph - of a banner that reads: Save the planet, scrap capitalism - had been replaced by a less incendiary one.

People traveled to the United Nations-sponsored climate conference in Copenhagen for a variety of reasons. Some of them protested in the streets of the Danish capital, some didn't. Of those who did, most demonstrated peacefully. Others donned masks and hurled bricks through windows. In other words, they're a diverse bunch.

We do, however, need to be honest about one thing. When Conservative, right-leaning folk accuse environmentalists of being "watermelons" - green on the outside and Red on the inside - they aren't pulling this accusation out of thin air.

There is, indeed, a portion of the environmental movement that sees capitalism as the problem. Never mind that capitalism is strongly correlated with prosperity and freedom. Never mind that socialist governments in China and the Soviet Union murdered tens of millions of souls during the 20th century. Never mind that socialist economies are typically basket cases - and that socialist governments have a long history of suppressing the basic freedoms of their citizens. Despite all of this painful experience, some people still think it would be cool to tear down capitalism.

Many of these folk have jumped on the environmental bandwagon because they think it will help them achieve their real goal.

So here's my question for the more sober-minded individuals attending Copenhagen - for those who sincerely believe the situation is dire, that climate catastrophe looms, that this is no ordinary crisis but a defining historical moment:

If this is more than just the latest installment in the on-going battle between left and right, Liberal and Conservative, greens and industry, why do you continue to behave as though it's business as usual?

If it's really, truly important to get as many people on board as quickly as possible why don't you act accordingly? Why are you not loudly distancing yourself from the capitalism-is-the-problem crowd? Why aren't you reassuring us that we needn't fear for our political structures?

Why aren't you telling everyone - on all sides of the climate debate - that the conversation about whether our particular political systems are right or wrong must wait for another day? That we must now focus all of our attention on climate issues.

Those who wish to argue for the destruction of capitalism have a right to free speech and should not be silenced. But environmental leaders - including all the politicians, celebrities and media commentators yakking on incessantly about climate - need to distance themselves from the "scrap capitalism" bunch.

Until that happens, don't expect me to share your sense of urgency. It looks like just another media circus to me. Plenty of drama - but no real substance.


Dec 12, 2009

Al Gore: Not This Thinking Woman's Thinking Man

How about that Al Gore? The "Thinking Man's Thinking Man" and the "Eco-Prophet" (as dubbed by Newsweek last month.) Or Al Gore the Christ (Time magazine's implication in May 2007).

Attention fawning media outlets: your environmental savior with the supposedly high-octane intellect is looking rather shabby. I mean, an intellectual researches things a tad before making public pronouncements, doesn't he?

So what are we to make of the interview Mr. Gore gave to Slate magazine four days ago? He was asked about the 1,073 e-mails that comprise part of the ClimateGate documents leaked/hacked last month. These e-mails reveal prominent climate scientists discussing amongst themselves oh-so-unscientific behavior like evading Freedom of Information requests, deleting select e-mails, and boycotting journals that publish articles they disagree with.

Mr. Gore is asked by Slate how "damaging to [his] argument" he feels the e-mails are. His reply:
To paraphrase Shakespeare, it's sound and fury signifying nothing. I haven't read all the e-mails, but the most recent one is more than 10 years old. [bold added by me]
The journalist says the e-mails suggest "that data was hidden and hoarded" and points out this runs counter to the apparent claim in Mr. Gore's latest book that there's been "an open and fair debate" about climate change. Mr. Gore's reply:
I think it's been taken wildly out of e-mail exchange more than 10 years ago... [my bold]
Two sentences further on, he makes this assertion one more time:
What we're seeing is a set of changes worldwide that just make this discussion over 10-year-old e-mails kind of silly. [my bold]
Well, here's the problem. The "thinking man's thinking man" appears to have left planet Earth during his Slate interview and the journalist, I'm sorry to report, apparently didn't notice. Even a liberal-arts-major like me can do this math. Mr. Gore may be stuck in a 1999 time warp, but
  • 44% of these e-mails are from 2006 or later
  • only 1 in 7 are ten years old or older
The e-mails are listed here, 25 to a page. There's nearly 10 full pages from the last two years alone. The most recent one, rather than being written a decade ago as Mr. Gore claims, was authored less than four weeks before the Slate interview.

These e-mails, penned by some of the scientists who produce the United Nations' climate Bible - the IPCC reports (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) - are not old news. They are not obscured by the sands of time and cannot be dismissed as being, in essence, "silly old things."

But the journalist didn't point that out. Perhaps he chose - more wisely than did Mr. Gore - to not go there since he wasn't entirely sure. Slate later inserted astericks after each of the above quotes which all link to this interesting addendum:
In the interview, Al Gore said that the e-mails printed from researchers at the University of East Anglia were 10 years old. They are more recent than that, including many from 2009. In response, Gore has issued a statement: "The e-mail exchanges that I focused on are approximately 10 years old. Some of the e-mail exchanges cited by others are more recent. None of them change the scientific consensus in any way."
There's a website out there called Honestly, I think its name is unfortunate. I prefer to believe that people make mistakes, that they get carried away in the heat of the moment, that their mouths overtake their brain on occasion. I think it's rude to accuse someone of being a liar.

But if Mr. Gore isn't intellectually impaired and he isn't an outright liar what are we left with?

Option A: He's a salesman. He apparently doesn't care whether his remarks are accurate. He appears not to have read these e-mails and seems unlikely to do so. For him, facts are beside the point.

Mr. Gore may simply be interested in selling stuff: his books, his film, his speeches ($175,000 per) and his photo standing beside you (for the equivalent of $1,200). And let's not even talk about the various green ventures in which he's financially involved.

Option B: He's grown complacent and lazy. Mr. Gore has gotten used to having his ring kissed by the media. (CBS news anchor Katie Couric gushed last month that she was "honored" to be giving Mr. Gore, the "Godfather of Green [and] the King of Conservation," publicity for his new book.)

That's not the kind of milieu that keeps one sharp. Once you've been declared the "thinking man's thinking man" maybe you start to believe that any assertion that comes out of your mouth will be treated like gospel, so why sweat it.

It seems to me the mainstream media now faces a choice. It can start doing its job - which used to be understood as helping ensure the little folk aren't victimized by wealthy, powerful, famous ones pushing schemes designed to enrich themselves. It can start writing stories that represent the checks and balances the press is supposed to supply in a democratic society.

Or it can carry on being the public relations arm of I-can't-be-bothered-to-get-basic-facts-right politicians like Al Gore. In that case, the sooner such "journalists" are relegated to the dustbin of history the better.


Dec 8, 2009

Our Hyperactive Planet

A few pages before the Harvard-educated MD, Michael Crichton, ends his global-warming-doubting novel State of Fear, one of his characters says the following:
...our planet remains amazingly active. We have five hundred volcanoes, and an eruption every two weeks. Earthquakes are continuous: a million and a half a year, a moderate Richter 5 quake every six hours, a big earthquake every ten days. Tsunamis race across the Pacific Ocean every three months.

Our atmosphere is as violent as the land beneath it. At any moment there are one thousand five hundred electrical storms across the planet. Eleven lighting bolts strike the ground each second. A tornado tears across the surface every six hours. And every four days, a giant cyclonic storm, hundreds of miles in diameter, spins over the ocean and wreaks havoc on the land.

The nasty little apes that call themselves human beings can do nothing except run and hide. For these same apes to imagine they can stabilize this atmosphere is arrogant beyond belief.
Earlier, the character has explained that Earth is "five billion years old" and has been "changing constantly all during that time." The current atmosphere, he says, is actually the third distinct one the planet has produced.

Yes, this is a work of fiction. But it also contains a 20-page annotated bibliography, as well as a 5-page "Author's Message" followed by 6-page essay titled "Why Politicized Science Is Dangerous."

This essay reminds us that eugenics (which embraced the idea that "inferior" humans should be sterilized to protect the gene pool) was once supported by the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the National Research Council.


We HAVE Heard This Rhetoric Before

I’ve just re-read Michael Crichton’s global-warming-doubting novel, State of Fear. Published in 2004, it contains an extensive annotated bibliography “to assist those readers who would like to review my thinking and arrive at their own conclusions.”

Regarding the Lowell Ponte book, The Cooling, Crichton says:

The most highly praised of the books from the 1970s that warned of an impending ice age. (The cover asks: ‘Has the next ice age already begun? Can we survive it?) Contains a chapter on how we might modify the global climate to prevent excessive cooling. A typical quote: ‘We cannot simply afford to gamble against this possibility by ignoring it. We cannot risk inaction. Those scientists who say we are entering a period of climatic instability [i.e., unpredictability] are acting irresponsibly. The indications that our climate can soon change for the worse are too strong to be reasonably ignored’ (p. 237). [bold added by me, above square brackets inserted by Crichton]

The similarity to contemporary global warming rhetoric is striking. Back in the groovy 1970s, we were being told that the evidence for dangerous cooling was so persuasive that we:

  • shouldn't gamble with the future
  • shouldn't ignore the evidence
  • mustn't risk inaction
  • should view scientists with alternative points-of-view as irresponsible
  • should consider the evidence too strong to be ignored
Despite such highly-charged, eerily-familiar rhetoric, rather than descending into an ice age the globe promptly, we're now told, began a 25-year-long warming period.

In other words, rhetoric about future calamity is one thing. Actual historical events are quite another. Whatever the nature of the apparent threat - cooling, warming, the Y2K bug, shark attacks, killer bees - it seems our ways of thinking - and talking - about such threats don't change much.

Overwrought emotionalism tells us nothing. As this fabulous blog post, titled: 'The Copenhagen Diagnosis' Fails Logic 101, points out: "Threats of doom are simply not proof of anything except excitability in the [sic] their authors."

Amen to that.

P.S. Crichton's bibliography (at the top of page 599 of the North American State of Fear hardcover edition), says the Powell book was published by Prentice-Hall in 1972. says it was published in 1976.


>> We're always out-of-touch with the future

>> Global Disaster Is So 1976
>> The big picture: the Y2K lesson

Dec 2, 2009

Why the Munk Debate Proves the Debate Isn't Over

Last night, in front of a live audience of 1,100 in Toronto, four prominent individuals debated the following question:
Be it resolved climate change is mankind's defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response.
The question wasn't do you think climate change is:
  • natural?
  • man-made?
  • a problem?
  • a non-issue?
  • within our power to influence?
  • beyond our ability to control?
Instead, it was carefully focused on whether climate change is the most pressing problem currently facing humanity, as the thousands of souls jetting off to Copenhagen apparently consider it to be.

Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada's Green Party, and George Monbiot, UK newspaper columnist and author, argued the "pro" position.

Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lomborg and former UK
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, argued against.

A video of the entire 2-hour debate can be viewed here. It appears that, at a later date, a transcript will also be available.

What's interesting is that while Al Gore and others insist "the debate is over" few of us have actually witnessed a genuine debate on this topic. Instead, via the mainstream media, we've been force-fed one particular perspective.

So what happens when multiple points of view are granted equal time to make their case? Opinion shifts. But not in the direction environmental activists would wish.

When the 1,100 people entered the auditorium they were asked to vote. 61% considered climate change to be "mankind's defining crisis," while 39% thought otherwise.

At 1 pm today, Munk Debates, the organization that sponsored last night's event, e-mailed the post-debate results to those of us who'd signed up to watch online. [click image for a larger view]
The verdict: support for the motion dropped from 61 to 53%. Opposition increased from 39 to 47%.

In other words, when people are given a chance to hear both sides of the story, public opinion shifts from roughly 2 to 1 in favor of the view that climate change is our top priority to pretty much evenly split.

This means the debate is by no means over. In fact, it's a good indicator that the real debate hasn't yet begun. When nations or organizations make profound, reboot decisions about the future (such as when they amend their constitutions), they typically require a super-majority in the neighborhood of two-thirds to 75%. Last night produced nothing like a super-majority in one direction or the other.


UPDATE: Dec.3 - The error on the Monk Debates website, discussed below, has been corrected. Producer David Taylor apologizes and advises that there were 583 PRO votes post-debate and 517 CON votes. Thus, the above numbers are accurate.

P.S. I've just noticed something rather curious. The post-debate numbers displayed on the Munk Debates website are different from the ones distributed in the e-mail. The website says the results were 56% pro and 44% con - not quite as large a shift. Strange.

But the larger point remains. The position advanced by May and Monbiot lost ground last night after the audience was exposed to an alternative perspective.