Archive for the ‘General’ Category

The Small ‘e’ environmentalist

August 13, 2008

I know several people who, when asked their political views, claim to be “small ‘c’ Conservatives”. They do so because they feel they are genuinely conservative in the sense that they adhere to somewhat traditional values or the status quo, but it can also mean they support a conservative fiscal policy for government – in the sense that spending is kept under control, taxes kept within reason and budgets are balanced. They call themselves thus primarily to distinguish themselves from the more reactionary ‘Conservatives’ – be they neo-Conservatives or plain old right-wing nuts. Most of the ones I know are generally ‘pro-choice’, in favour of rights for gays and so on, and are strong advocates of small government – not to the point of Libertarianism or anarchy – but not full of make-work projects for bureaucrats and their friends either. The term is also used by people who adhere to conservative views, but aren’t a member of the Conservative Party (or Republican Party in the US), mainly because they believe those parties have been hi-jacked by the more extremist elements with whom they don’t want to be associated.

I often feel the same way about Environmentalism. As a movement it seems to have largely been taken over by extremists, alarmists, opportunists and hypocrites. Some of the extremists seem to have either a bizarre, utopian anti-capitalist or anti-western agenda, others are plain old racists in disguise. Still others stand to make a killing through Carbon trading and government subsidies; concern over the environment may be merely a cynical cloak for otherwise unabashed greed.

It takes a fair sized ego (perhaps even some sort of Messianic Complex) to think one can ‘save the planet’. Unfortunately, what I find common is what PJ O’Rourke once noted: there are a lot of people who would do anything to “save the planet”, except take a science course. The end result is a lot of politicking, shoddy science, more taxes, more proposed regulation, intrusiveness, calls for McCarthy-style witch hunts and show trials, irrational hysteria, and worse.

Disagreeing with them about anything brings charges that one is ‘killing the planet’ or doesn’t care about the future, or is right wing or a redneck or brainwashed by big business. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many people who care deeply about the world, but are alarmed by all the alarmism.

There’s no denying the importance of clean air and drinking water. I’ve been to Southeast Asia and seen how polluted the water is, and how smoggy the air around Southern China is. I’ve been to Eastern Europe and seen the impact that decades of lax controls had there on all the beautiful old buildings. Heck, I’ve been to Sudbury several times in my life and can recall quite well when the surrounding landscape resembled the moon and the whole area stunk of sulphur. I don’t think companies should be allowed to pollute the air or waterways, particularly in areas where people live, if there are other options.

I’m all for alternative energy sources, so long as they are genuinely efficient, and so long as they are suitable replacements for current energy sources. I’m not entirely convinced that any of them are apart from nuclear. I don’t think the massive subsidies being provided by governments is the right way to go about it either. The reality is that access to cheap energy has played a main role in enabling a productive surplus in industrialized countries, and it is ironic that this very same productive surplus, which has enabled nearly everyone to have access to the internet, the opportunity for higher education and escape from a life of chronic drudgery, including all the neo-Luddites who seem to think everyone should go back to subsistence farming (which is probably not what the really want, but they refuse to understand that that is the logical consequence if some of the crazier proposals they insist on were actually implemented.)

I’m appalled by gratuitous waste (particularly over-packaging and cheap disposable crap) but it’s really not my business what other people do or buy. Heck, as far as enviro-cred goes, I’m up there: I don’t drive, I don’t use pesticides or herbicides, I shop locally and eat mostly in season fruit and veg (mostly because it’s cheaper and tastes better), shop second-hand for most clothes and household items, look for quality over quantity and generally avoid being wasteful. But again, what other people choose to do is simply not my business. I think it’s silly to spend more on a car than some people pay for a house, I’ve never understood the appeal of a debt-financed lifestyle to keep up with the Jones’s. Don’t get me wrong – I’m quite happy to make fun of them – but I don’t think it’s evil, or wrong, it’s their life after all, not mine.

I don’t think the world is likely to end any time soon, or that the projected catastrophes will turn to anything. The entire concept of some ‘tipping point’ happening when concentrations of atmospheric CO2 reach 500 ppm are utter nonsense, considering CO2 is logarithmic, and that most of the scarier projections (not predictions!) are based on taking the most extreme interpretation of dubious computer models, not actual experiments or observation (which often contradicts the models).

What I find quite often as well is that Environmentalists often claim to want to save the planet for future generations, but seem quite comfortable ignoring the suffering endured by the already living. I’ve never quite understood the rationale of being so concerned about people who may not ever exist at the expense of those who are currently alive, except that they are really only concerned about their own kids and grand kids and so on. Other examples are even less comprehensible to me. Greenpeace are quite happy to try to shut down a little mine in Rosia Montana, Romania (Gabriel Resources is hardly in the same league as Alcoa or BHP Billiton) but I don’t see them demanding a clean up of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.

At the rotten core of some Environmentalists’ arguments is the notion of overpopulation. PJ O’Rourke, in his excellent book All the Trouble in the World had a chapter on the argument of world population entitled: Plenty of Me, Way Too Much of You. It sums up the attitude perfectly, implied but rarely admitted.

In a nutshell, any claim of ‘over-population’ is basically saying that some other people don’t have a right to live. Almost like the jihadi suicide bombers, there seems to be a deep-rooted hatred of life, at least human life. Or perhaps it’s just a modern form of ancient tribalism, somehow wired tightly into allegedly civilized brains.

This isn’t the same fascination that most of us share at one time or another in the face of huge natural disasters. There are many people who believe that world resources aren’t just finite, but will run out soon, and they want to be sure there’s enough for them and their friends and family and descendants. Of course, other people and their descendants are a threat to that. The idea of killing them outright (like, say, what the Germans tried, resulting in the Holocaust) is seldom advanced, so there are vague claims that more should be done regarding contraception, that laws should be passed limiting the number of kids people have…

Especially in the Third World. Forgetting for a moment that countries with high birth rates also tend to have high infant mortality rates. Forget too the actual fact that around the world birth rates and population projections are actually falling, and that it is widely agreed that the best way to reduce birthrates anyway isn’t through forced contraception or ‘family planning’, but educating girls. A lot of supposedly ‘over-populated’ areas actually have lower population densities than most of Northern Europe, and since the highest birthrates are still in the Third World, most references to forced contraception and so on refer at least implicitly to them. Heaven forbid they might want to immigrate to places where fertility rates are below replacement levels. Indeed, claims of overpopulation being a threat to the environment is the last area where one can be a politically-correct racist.

In addition, I find that many Environmentalists have an ideological agenda that has little to do with the actual environment and more to do with either perpetual fund-raising or with vague, puritanical notions of what people ‘should’ be doing. Take for example, the annual seal hunt in Newfoundland every year, which brings out the pictures of white baby seals, and boatloads of protesters. This annual hunt brings in around $14million for Newfoundland according to Global Action Network. Considering the number of well-funded Environmentalist groups who use this seal hunt as an annual rallying point, collectively they could easily just buy out all the fishermen – pay them not to hunt the seals – and be done with it. Heck, Paul McCartney could easily afford to himself. But it’s very likely that the various groups probably rake in more funds via brochures with pictures of cute baby seals being massacred, that they probably depend on the seal hunt more than the Newfoundlanders do.

Another problem with this flood of hysteria and disinformation spread so widely is that genuine environmental threats are drowned out. How many people just chuck old batteries in the garbage, for instance? And in some instances, what people think is the cause of a problem might actual be something different. An example is the cause of toxic algae in lakes – a new study recently showed phosphates, not nitrates to be the culprit. The wrong information can lead to costly solutions that end up being completely ineffective at best. Even scarier is the seemingly instant acceptance of the proposal to dump lime into oceans to combat an alleged problem of ocean acidification by various bloggers and media outlets. If you’re up on your latest global warming climate change scares, this is one of the latest. Never mind that the feasibility study on which this hare-brained scheme is based was funded by Shell (as in the Big Oil company Royal Dutch/Shell Group). I find it rather odd that none of the major ‘Environmentalist’ blogs made much of an issue of that fact, nor that they have anything but a positive view on the proposed scale of meddling. Even if ocean acidification is really a major concern and the cause of it really is atmospheric carbon-dioxide, doesn’t mean that this or any other large scale operation to counter-act it would be a terribly good idea.

My last peeve has to do with the overuse of either “they” or “we” when referring to what ‘should’ be done. It’s always their over-consumption, or we should be shopping less, never declarations in the first-person singular. As The Onion jokes, 98% of Americans think others should use public transit. I often wonder about the motives of many of these people too. I get the sense that it has little to do with the environment at all, and rather more to do with egotism – with displays of righteousness and (moral) superiority over others – and as means to exercise control over the behaviour of others – dictating what car they should drive (if at all), how much they should shop, what they should eat, how they should think and so on. Being sanctimonious is fun for lot of people and almost nothing allows for wider array of opportunities for it than being an Environmentalist. Worst are the jet-set environmentalists – the Al Gores and Laurie Davids who live in mansions and have a luxurious lifestyle that is well beyond reach of all but the super-rich, but travel the world in private jets lecturing others to save electricity or change their lightbulbs. It’s a little difficult to believe there’s any looming crisis if even the most ardent proponents aren’t willing to make even minor lifestyle changes.

I’ll end with a pertinent quote from HL Mencken:

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.


The formation of an AGW Doubter

August 12, 2008

‘AGW’ of course, is short-hand for ‘anthropogenic global warming’, which itself is short-hand for the theory that proponents claim to be reality, that carbon-dioxide emissions from human sources such as cars, coal-powered generators and so on into the atmosphere is (via the ‘greenhouse effect) causing the planet to warm, which will result in higher sea levels flooding coastal areas, wipe out species destroy crops and basically bring on some sort of secular Armageddon.

Okay, I’ve given myself away. I really doubt that these alarmist scenarios are likely to happen, that polar bears or penguins are going to die off, that NYC will be flooded, and if these things were to happen it would be natural causes, not the result of something ‘we’ had done.

I have another blog, but I noticed that I was posting more and more on ‘green’ issues, while the intent of my original blog was to encompass my thoughts on everything. So this littleblackduck will focus on other ‘dithpicable’ things and this one will be for my thoughts on everything ‘green’. For a start I’ll cross-post the things I wrote originally on lbd.

But first, some background:

I finished high school in 1989 and took a year off before going into university. I suppose I need the year or so of crappy, low-paying minimum wage jobs to convince me of the value of higher education. Needless to say, it didn’t take very long.

I was over at a friend’s place one evening, sitting around with her and her dad when the subject of Global Warming came up. This was in 1990, the year of the first IPCC Assessment Report on Climate Change, just under two years after James Hansen’s testimony on man-made CO2 emissions being behind global warming. And we both thought that this global warming was a bad thing.

Both my friend and I had been convinced – this was a top scientist at NASA after all – but my friend’s dad thought the whole thing was absurd. He mentioned how they were previously warned about global cooling. He said that a large volcanic explosion could dump far more into the atmosphere then Man ever could and the earth had recovered just fine before. We all soon dropped the subject. We couldn’t convince him that we were right, that the earth would be dying if people didn’t change their ways, and we couldn’t convince him of what we thought; that he was so very wrong. Just don’t call an old Jewish man, who had relatives die in the camps, a Denier.

In University I took an Arts degree and had my fill of ‘critical theory’ and cultural studies and the rest. It was true that the department – like a lot of Arts faculties in University – I was in was left-wing dominated, but we didn’t think so at the time. We thought that what we were learning was true, as opposed to the right-wing dogma in the mainstream media and every single institution known to civilization. Again, the science at the time, in the early 90s, seemed to support the theory of CO2 causing global warming, that industrial pollutants were slowly heating and choking the earth. This was before the hysteria claiming the earth would be flooded up to the Appalachians; most of the projects were fairly long-range and less dire. However, notions even then of carbon-credits were looked on with suspicion and rightly so. If only that were the case now.

I admit I didn’t spend much of my twenties thinking much about global warming, but I assumed what we’d all been told was probably true. I didn’t have a car (or even a drivers license) and with such low-paying jobs as could be found in the midst of a recession I couldn’t afford a life of conspicuous consumption even if I’d wanted to. Having a mother who grew up during the Depression and World War II, I’d already been raised to be pretty thrifty. I figured my own impact was pretty low.

At most I’d tut-tut about the SUV drivers and their gas-guzzling ways (rather than their bad driving habits – why are they the first in the ditch when it snows?), read up on what sort of appliances or ways of doing regular chores might be more energy saving.

But slowly, over the beginning of this current decade, the climate alarm bells started to sound more loudly, the demands for action became more urgent, the warnings more dire. Naturally the media would jump on the most dramatic and cataclysmic scenarios, as they always do, whether it be Y2K or bird flu or mad cow disease…

I won’t go into detail here about any of the jobs I did between when I graduated University in 1995 until now, except that they were all media related. In addition, my mother was once a journalist, as was her mother. So I’ve long and repeatedly been inoculated with a healthy dose of skepticism, particularly when it comes to media hysteria. I remember well when ‘dot coms’ flourished and there were claims that this was a new way of doing business and that the DOW would soon hit over 30,000. In the midst of all the hype of this new tech utopia, I remember thinking: “this is all bullshit”. If I’d only understood short-selling at that point I probably could have retired then. The ensuing Nasdaq meltdown didn’t surprise me in the least.

Then Michael Crichton ‘came out’ against man-made global warming. I’d enjoyed the book Jurassic Park (which I’d read before it was made into a movie), but thought at the time that he’s only an author, not a scientist… Because he’d been a famous author, his stance generated a lot of media attention. I remember wondering at the time how anyone could doubt global warming, that he must, deep-down, be one of those right-wing nuts or worse, someone who liked George Bush Jr… Of course, I hadn’t read what he’d actually written or said, the very thing which had generated so much controversy. I assumed that most of the UN statements and so on were correct, that only a few nutjobs seriously challenged it, but at the same time, I wasn’t interested enough in the subject to either question it, or seriously examine it. There’d just been other things that occupied more of my time.

And then that movie came out. We all know which one I mean, Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. That movie was a turning point for me, though obviously not in the way the makers surely intended. The more alarmist the projections, the more I figured I should read up on the subject. I still believed the basic premises at this point, I just though the doomsday scenarios were likely pretty exaggerated. I recalled the famous “Hockey Stick” graphs, and thought at the time that it didn’t look quite right to me. I found it a bit incredible that the global temperatures showed so little variability over the millennium until just the past decade. I was already familiar with the warming period of the middle ages, followed by the little ice age. Besides, this famous graph still only went back to the year 1,000 and the earth is nearly 5 billion years old. The timescale of humans is tiny compared to that of the entire earth.

So I read up in various internet forums, read the related news, read posts of people commenting on their take these news items, read up on the links they provided to support their claims. I came across sites like realclimate and others, which I bookmarked for later reading.

In the meantime, and during my searches, other stories creeped into my consciousness. Warming on other planets, for instance. Not just Mars, but also Jupiter, Pluto, moons on Saturn… I didn’t see this as a refutation of AGW, but I did think it needed further explanation. So I’d go over to sites like realclimate to see what they had to say about it, and they made some good points about Pluto’s orbit, or that the trend on Mars was really only a few years…

However, when I started to read other items on this site and others, I noticed a few things. One was a arrogance the people posting on the various sites (those commenting, as well as the writers). There’s not a single one that stands out in my mind now, it was more an overall tone; patronizing and condescending and sarcastic – rude almost – but hardly academic. Not the sort of discourse one would expect from people insisting they are real scientists.

I noticed too that one of the contributors of Realclimate was Michael Mann, progenitor of the famous Hockey Stick Graph. I learned that another more active member worked with James Hansen at NASA as a climate modeler. It’s natural that those who work in a field where it’s their graphs and their climate models were used would be likely to try to defend them. Most of the other sites appeared to be maintained by various activists, a lot of journalists, and all seemed to be pretty one-sided. Then the excellent Arts and Letters Daily started a new site, Climate Debate Daily.  Though I agree with some of the criticisms (such as the simplistic ‘for’ and ‘against’ format), it is a pretty decent resource.

Out of habit I don’t tend to take any blog or article or resource or study as the final word on anything. What I do is seek out the opposing views on a given issue (such as whether the sun is a factor or not, whether warming on Mars matters or not), try to find what they’re basing them on, and where possible, see the original source (such as the ‘consensus study’ in Science or NOAA data).

The change in my views was therefore quite gradual. I avoided certain websites and links to them altogether if there were the source someone had cited for their claims – such as Newsbusters, but also such sites as Gristmill, presuming that each would be biased. But I also saw sites that I initially thought more reliable were actually some of the worst of all.

I learned that actual earth temperatures are currently not increasing. That the Oregon Petition is not a hoax as some claim. That there is actually very little ‘industry’ funding the ‘denialist side’, and even most of that is indirect. That a lot of the earliest critics are not cranks, but very reputable scientists, despite what various smear sites have to say about them.

Some items I only came across because of the various sites I found attacking them. One example was Britain’s Channel 4 documentary, the notorious Great Global Warming Swindle which, despite the sensationalist title, was actually more restrained. Despite all the attacks I naturally watched it to make up my own mind and if I were to weigh it against Al Gore’s movie there’s no contest. No wonder the attacks have been so vicious, culminating in the OFCOM ruling in which both ‘sides’ claimed a rather dubious victory. The OFCOM involvement came about largely due to complaints by activists. This was merely one of many, many examples of attempts by those who claim ‘the debate is over’ to stifle said debate.  I’m not sure what alarmists hope to achieve with these tactics, but for me they completely backfired. I’m sure I’m not the only one either.

Whenever someone actively tries to shut someone else up, one always has to wonder why they feel the need to do so.  It is important to always question the motives of anyone who attempts circumscribe free speech, particularly on any contentious subject.

I’ve asked over and over again: if the arguments for one side are so strong, they why do they find it necessary to lie and smear and exaggerate and censor?

Why do people use graphs to support their arguments tend to use graphs that have either been discredited or are a decade out of date? Why do so many of the most ardent proponents have no science background whatsoever (but a very long history of activism or promoting other left-wing views), and what would happen to the careers of those that do if their models and theories if the overwhelming weight of evidence failed to support them?

If wind and solar are so great then why is there a need for massive subsidies?

And if there really is so much ‘industry’ funding, then why is Exxon the only oil company that gets singled out, or why is it the only one funding anybody?

I don’t think that AGW is a hoax, or a fraud. I do wonder at the motives of some of the more active proponents, particularly those who stand to make a fortune through carbon credits or alternative energy subsidies.  Though some of the data used to support it might very well fudged or manipulated it is probably more out of wishful thinking, or ineptitude than deliberate malfeasance. However, I find Anthropogenic Global Warming to be a specious theory, not strongly supported by either hard science or evidence or data, that there is no consensus (nor does such a thing matter) and I find some of the most vocal adherents stick to their positions either because it supports their pre-existing ideological world view or because they cannot afford to be wrong.