On the irrelevance of the climate debate

Slightly simplified, the debate is a battle with one front in between two camps.

camp foo camp bar
claim Science proves that anthropogenic global warming currently takes place. There is no such evidence.
implication Drastically reduce emission of greenhouse gasses. Continue to exploit and burn fossil fuels as long as possible.

This is only a slight simplification since a general rule applies: the more fierce a debate, the more closed the ranks. And yes, the debate is fierce and the ranks are closed; closed to the point where camp foo frequently resorts to the “either you are with us or you are with them [big oil]”-notion, a notion rightly despised by the very same people when peddled by the likes of Bush in the context of what is presented as the War on Terror™.

Nonetheless, a few bystanders exist who do not feel comfortable in either camp, one of them being the author who would like to suggest another option.

claim There is no such thing as scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming.
implication So what? Many other reasons exist to not exploit and burn all fossil fuels, we’d be well advised to focus on the issues sidelined and on the bullshit and snake-oil fostered by the prevailing reductionist CO2-fearmongering.

I will not elaborate on the claim, this has been aptly done by others (ignore the occasional political slant). Instead, let me elaborate on the three parts of the suggested implication: on the “so what?”-part, on the issues sidelined and on the bullshit and snake-oil fostered.

So what?

The notion that scientific “proof” is a prerequisite for implementation of reasonable policies is malicious. Evidence-based science is great where applicable but it is notoriously bad at accurately describing, let alone predicting, the behaviour of systems as complex as the Earth’s climate. Wikipedia, right in the introduction of the article on complex systems, states:

The physical manifestations of such systems are difficult to define, so a common choice is to identify “the system” with the mathematical information model rather than referring to the undefined physical subject the model represents.

Thus, it may pose a welcome challenge for computer scientists to develop climate models and it may as well be profitable for companies to install the hardware required to run them but the outcome is only relevant to the models themselves, not to reality.

Thus, if we accept that any attempt to model a system as complex as our planet’s climate cannot provide scientific evidence, that it rather is nothing but a pipe dream founded on self-delusion and nerd hubris, are we then flat on our back? Spoiler alert: we are not, we can act on the side of caution.

In his book The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff condenses Laozi’s Tao Te Ching to the following sentence: Observe, deduce and apply. This sentence we should keep in mind as it fits both, evidence-based science and empirical wisdom.

Without resorting to modelling, we can observe behaviour of real-world complex systems such as ecosystems. We can, for instance, observe that flooding a pond with slurry kills most of its former inhabitants or that removing all but one tree species from a forest results in frequent pest propagation. This kind of observation, along with many other similar ones, will then allow us to deduce two properties of ecosystems:

  • ecosystems are the more stable the less they are disturbed;
  • a high level of diversity increases the resilience of an ecosystem towards disturbance.

Unless we understand every single aspect of a complex system—something we will not achieve with regard to climate—applying this kind of observational wisdom is the best we can do and we should do so.

Rapidly releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere certainly does constitute a disturbance to the system, thus we should avoid it—though not at any cost since CO2 is first and foremost a non-toxic and essential ingredient of the atmosphere.

As we will have to make the transition towards renewable sources of energy anyway and as the ride will be the smoother the earlier we start, there’s no point in getting carried away by the—in itself certainly valid—question whether anthropogenic CO2-emissions significantly influence climate. To the contrary, it would be smart not to do the fossil fuel industry the favour of exposing vast attack surface by basing policy decisions on a single dodgy hypothesis. The blowback is on its way.

Our ancestors used bow and arrow despite being clueless regarding Newtonian mechanics. They could as well have sat down starving while waiting for scientific proof, just as some corporate entities ask us to do when e.g. refusing to stop emitting hormone-like chemicals into the environment until proof of their malicious effect is rock-solid. Taken to the extreme, accepting this kind of reasoning would imply that we need to wait with any policy decision until science provides us with evidence proving that we need a functioning planet to live on. If we don’t abide by this kind of reasoning, we also need not dogmatically insist that anthropogenic global warming is proven.

As a side note, for those concerned: fracking of shale or mining of tar sands is inherently toxic, thus it is downright bizarre that many feel the need to lug in of all things the most innocent of molecules, carbon dioxide, in order to credibly oppose this type of endeavour.

Issues sidelined

Climate change is the geological norm. It is neither unprecedented in scale nor in rate and we need healthy ecosystems and societies in order to adapt. For to have healthy ecosystems and societies, good environmental stewardship is paramount.

That said, it is much easier to blame the abstract entity called climate change. Blaming climate change frees you from the need to actually tackle the problems’ very tangible causes: you simply refer to some declaration of intent that your government’s representative signed at some neck-tie conference, done.

“Environmentally friendly” is sooo 90s, everything is “climate friendly” these days and the “ecological footprint” got replaced by the “carbon footprint”. This change in terms is symptomatic for the prevailing reductionist focus. CO2 or even “carbon” is the new scapegoat upon which all kind of malpractice can and must be conveniently blamed.

River flooding is blamed on climate change, no need to undo straightening of watercourses or to reforest catchment areas.

When there is a jellyfish bloom, climate change makes it into the headline while the obvious reason, overfishing of their food competitors, is ousted to the small print.

Droughts have been blamed on climate change even though there is no global increase in their occurrence. What is often perceived as drought simply is inappropriate land use, relatively easily cured.

Starvation is blamed on climate change despite a malicious anthropogenic money system being the major cause.

Instabilities of the current financial system are blamed on climate change despite them being an inherent feature.

Coastal erosion is blamed on climate change, even though sea levels are (almost) not rising. Again, the very tangible reasons aren’t addressed: sand mining and disruption of natural sediment transport processes by erection of e.g. sea walls. Natural defences like salt marshes, mangroves, reefs or dunes offer the best protection: currents deposit sediment in the tidal zone during high tide, during low tide the sun dries portions of that sediment, wind picks it up and deposits some of it in the vegetation above high water line, thereby allowing the coast to keep up with potential sea level rise. This process doesn’t work out in every coastal setting but it would work out in many would it be facilitated rather than interrupted.

By steve_l (Maldives) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe list of issues sidelined could go on almost indefinitely, most of which are best solved by proper landscape use and good environmental stewardship. Jim Steele’s outstanding website and book contain more examples, both are highly recommended reading matter.

Bullshit and snake oil fostered

Climate Change, Global Warming and Carbon have become brands, marketing assets; sought after in the prevailing quest for buzzword compliance, click bait and research grants. Wherever there is a hype, snake oil peddlers are around.

No objection to wooden houses but emphasising their embodied carbon in is plain bullshit. Uncut trees last about as long as a house and neither houses nor forests can make up for fossilised carbon storage in the time scale of hundreds of millions of years. The same goes for “CO2 mattresses” (whatever that is supposed to be), of which the German minister of education assumes they’ll provide for our future bedstead. Sleep well, Mrs Wanka.

While we are at it, let’s go on with housing. Let’s talk building regulations in the “developed” western countries. Try and build a passive house in Germany:

  • During the building process you will drown in a mountain of highly toxic but certified products that supposedly help you with insulation: polystyrene panels, all sorts of adhesive tapes, air-tight membranes and smelly expansive foam scams to just name a few. And the carpenter in your neighbourhood isn’t allowed to build you a window unless he gets the model certified at a convenient price tag of just 20,000 €.
  • Once finished, you’ll end up in a non-durable, mechanically ventilated, air-tight and NSA-synced gadget cluster with vendor lock-in where you aren’t even allowed to manually open a window. When the inevitable mildew spreads, I’m sure you’ll find some sleazy salesman who’ll be excited about the opportunity to offer you a competitive remedy.

All this happens even though it is perfectly possible to build a (near) zero-energy house with traditional building materials: a bit of concrete/stone/brickwork, glass, timber, clay and lots of straw.

Why is this happening? It is profitable, it is part of the pervasive systems of dissociation in which a leech plugs itself in between people and every societal activity. In one exemplary case, the chemical industry teams up with government bodies to jointly campaign—under the veil of a seemingly unbiased governmental logo—for climate protection via their (fossil-fuel-based) retrofit-insulation. Along the way, manufacturers of the polystyrene panels—in Germany predominantly BASF—were granted an exemption allowing them to use the otherwise prohibited, highly toxic, flame retardant HBCD.

BS

Last example, although I’ve not even touched on biofuels, geoengineering or carbon emission trading. While development and use of efficient lighting technology is desirable, the brute force manners with which inferior products get pushed on the market are highly questionable, to put it mildly.

In an ever increasing number of countries, incandescent bulbs are banned. They are a well established and patent-free technology, raw materials used are reasonably abundant, production is simple, light quality with its continuous spectrum is excellent. The only caveat: they make for an inefficient illumination. They do make for an efficient heating, though.

Enter fluorescent light bulbs. An innovation industry with plenty of patents. Big business loves innovation industries and hates patent-free replacement industries like production of  incandescent bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs emit light of inferior quality—a discrete spectrum—so there’s something to innovate upon. They contain poisonous mercury so there’s even more to innovate upon. The second generation comes with a slightly less nasty set of spectral lines and contains a little less mercury. More patents. (Plans for development of mercury-free fluorescent bulbs by working with industry were hastily announced in the U.S. in 2008 but have never materialised.) Next, consumers demand mercury-free illumination for their childrens’ bedrooms. Enter LED lighting, spectrum now continuous again but still inferior for many applications. More patents.

In light of these prospects, what could be more welcome than abolition of the pesky replacement industry by governmental decree? Nothing beats that. Sounds exaggerated? Let’s have look what the encyclopaedia of misconduct, the WikiLeaks cables, can offer (emphasis added).

From Dushanbe, Tajikistan, November 2009:

Though the Oblast is inaccessible by road from Dushanbe during the winter, administrators have fulfilled Dushanbe’s orders with thuggish efficiency, such as going house-to-house to ensure that residents use energy-efficient light bulbs in accordance with the President’s September decree.

A bit further down in the cable,  under the tongue-in-cheek heading COUNTERTERRORISM AND LIGHTBULBS, the house-to-house visits are mentioned in the same breath as searches for militants.

At the Isfara Office of the Center for Human Rights, legal advocates said that government officials conducted house-to-house searches for militants in Isfara in the evening, but that the area is otherwise calm. Officials also have gone door-to-door to verify compliance with President Rahmon’s recent ban on incandescent lightbulbs, reportedly carrying sacks of energy-efficient bulbs to sell to Isfara residents who are non-compliant.

Why this racketeering? Why these orders from Dushanbe? Guess what, it’s not genuine concern about climate. From the same cable:

The bulbs cost four times more than regular lightbulbs, and many Tajiks speculate that the President and his family, as well as the local officials enforcing the law, are personally profiting from the lightbulb campaign.

An earlier cable, from June of the same year, is more specific:

In April President Rahmon signed a decree obligating all residential and commercial entities in Tajikistan to begin switching to energy-saving lightbulbs by May 1. The President said the change from incandescent lighting would save millions of kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Energy experts find the claims highly exaggerated. New Chinese-made energy-saving bulbs, mountains of which are for sale in Dushanbe’s markets, cost between $1.50 and $4.50, compared to $0.25 to $0.50 for incandescent bulbs. One of the biggest importers of these new bulbs is rumored to a Presidential daughter. According to Embassy sources, she imports truckloads of bulbs and other goods from China, circumventing customs officials at the border. The switch to energy-savings[sic] bulbs may be another example of an apparently progressive regulation in fact designed to benefit the President’s inner circle.

Oh well, the cherished daughter. The result?

As most of the energy-efficient bulbs are low-quality Chinese knock-offs, nearly every meeting in with interlocutors in Sughd Oblast took place under a greenish, eerie, dim light.

Now it could appear as if this scheme is one only practised by petty crooks who happen to be government officials in semi-pariah states like Tajikistan.

It certainly is not. Enter the World Bank, Islamabad, Pakistan, 2008:

Hoping to save 500 MW, incandescent bulbs will be replaced by energy saver bulbs. Pakistan Electric Power Company (PEPCO) will import 10 million bulbs through international competitive bidding and distribute the bulbs with PEPCO meter readers going door to door. The GOP [Government of Pakistan] estimates that the program cost will be recovered from consumers in 6 monthly installments through increases in electricity bills. The World Bank will reportedly pay for the initial procurement of the bulbs.

Domestic Lightbulb Production: Incandescent bulbs will be phased out over the next 5 years. The GOP plans to ban imports and withdraw tariff concessions to local manufacturers of the traditional incandescent bulbs. The import of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) will be duty free until domestic manufacturing of high quality CFLs is established.

Surprise, surprise, the usual pattern: following annihilation of domestic industries, the ever so benevolent World Bank finances imports on favourable terms.

The GI Files reference 10 million bulbs—inconclusive whether this is the same procurement—of which Transparency International Pakistan warned in late 2009

that the method by which Pepco is going to procure 10 million energy saver bulbs would cost it 100 pc higher than the market price.

[The government of Pakistan] would suffer a loss of at least Rs3 billion [around 35.7 million US$ at the time] if Pepco went ahead with its present plans.

Transparency International Pakistan request to Pepco for the postponement of the tender for 10 million CFL bulbs on 22 December 2009 was not agreed by Pepco.

For 2009/2010, the Asian Development Bank lists loans totalling 58 million US$ for another 30 million fluorescent bulbs and a corresponding waste management facility. Pakistan did in those years indeed suffer from a lack of electricity and, as a quick skim of news headlines indicates, does so to this day. Destroying a domestic industry in exchange for debt and mercury just doesn’t exactly sound like an appropriate remedy.

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If you have made it so far, dear reader, you might as well keep your eyes and ears alert, for sure you’ll find more cases of sidelined issues, bullshit and snake-oil. They’re all over the place and they need to be addressed. We can and should exhibit enough reason to end this scuffle which only serves to obfuscate. It’ll be a laughing stock for cynically inclined future historians, that part is already settled.

Reading the output of both camps’ propagandists, it transpires that the scientific question of anthropogenic global warming is superficially elevated; that the dispute actually is—and should overtly be—one rooted in different opinions on the political and moral question of whether we should apply the precautionary principle or the risk principle by default. Prediction: corporate pundits will have a much harder time to argue a moral case for the risk principle than they currently have dismissing unscientific science.

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