Muck and Mystery
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January 15, 2007
Egg Walking

There seems to be an increasing number of voices gingerly speaking up about the crass exploitation of climate change by ideologues with ulterior motives. [via Prometheus and via Biopolitical -> The Reality-Based Community]

People can easily see economic motives to bend the facts and abuse the science. Ideological motives are less readily apparent, but no less real; and, for quite a few people, environmentalism has become a matter of not just ideology but quasi-religious zealotry. . .

Most journalists and pundits have limited knowledge of science; as a result, they tend to pick whichever science best suits their political prejudices. Both science and journalism deserve better. Perhaps we can start by remembering that an ideological crusade can be as strong an inducement to bend the truth as the profit motive.

Sheesh. That's an understatement. Why does everyone tip-toe around as if they were afraid they would wake the baby? Ideologues have made a complete mess of this issue. Using climate change as a hobgoblin to menace the public into supporting their antique ideas about socio-economic systems has created conflict and opposition where little would otherwise exist. Kleiman is a bit more blunt.
To those who dislike a social system based on high and growing consumption and the economic activity that supports high and growing consumption and maintains high and growing demand (a dislike with which I have considerable sympathy), to those who think that the market needs more regulation by the state, to those who think that international institutions ought to be strengthened in order to limit the scope for national selfishness, and to those (an overlapping but not identical group) that thinks current attitudes toward maintaining the planet we inhabit are much too casual and insufficiently reverent, global warming is a Gaia-send. It means that the current pattern of activity is unsustainable, and it requires fairly drastic public action on a worldwide scale. Their eagerness to believe the worst (cf. An Inconvenient Truth) is just as evident as the right wing's denialism. That's not to say the two sides are equally wrong, just that neither side starts from an impartial position in examining the science.
He pulls the punch at the end - he's walking on eggs too - but he gets a little closer to truth. The problem is, of course, that the reality his words are based on is an alternate reality.
Now as it happens I like some of the most important proposed steps toward controlling global warming, on other grounds. We need to burn less oil to stop funding terrorists, and less coal to stop breathing particulate, and creating urban areas where mass transit is an attractive alternative to driving sounds like heaven to me. So I'm all for a heavy carbon tax, or a gasoline tax, or anything else that makes fossil-fuel use more expensive. Anyway, we need the revenue to do lots of other things I'd like to see the government do. And I'm convinced that shrinking material consumption among the prosperous could make all of us prosperous folks better off, though of course any individual who consumes less risks falling behind in the status race.
The world gets about 80% of its energy from fossil fuels. Nibbling around the edges of that will do absolutely nothing except irritate society. Facts are irrelevant to "the reality based community", since their reality is a fantasy world, a command and control video game like The Sims having little to do with physical or social reality as we experience it.

Energy needs will not decline. They will increase greatly. Fossil fuel use will not decline, it will increase. The best that can be done is to reduce the increase in fossil fuel use by using other energy sources for part of our energy needs, reduce the amount of carbon emitted in the process by capturing some, and scrubbing some old carbon out of the atmosphere for long term sequestration. That is unlikely to be good enough, soon enough, so we also need to be prepared to deploy methods other than GHG management - those that come under the general heading of geoengineering. And we need to take steps to cope with the consequences of warming.

This assumes that current scientific knowledge is valid. It may be, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. There's still a lot of hand waving involved and science itself has suffered greatly from the predations of ideologues - not least dark sider scientists. But this isn't a novel threat. We have been seeking to manage the atmosphere for a long time - the whole of the industrial revolution - so in that sense it is more of the same, a continuation of a struggle against an old nemesis, one of our own making and an inescapable aspect of the human condition.

It can also be seen as a continuation of the far more ancient struggle to evade the consequences of wallowing in our own effluvia while providing abundant goods and services. The water works of ancient civilizations, especially Rome, were similar. Great engineering works brought water from afar to what would otherwise have been disease ridden death traps. Similar technologies carried wastes away.

It's interesting to note that uneven development of the world provides current examples of each aspect of the struggle. Parts of the world are still trying to solve the water and waste puzzle, and so have little interest in the air puzzle yet. And it's interesting to note that none of these puzzles are ever solved once and for all. It isn't going on to the next puzzle after having solved the current one, it's doing multiple puzzles at once. A better analogy might be juggling an increasing number of balls, or perhaps flaming swords since the consequences of error are dangerous and possibly fatal.

It's time to cut the crap. Those who refuse to grow up and face the facts of our existence have nothing of value to offer. Our challenges are real and increasing, and the rate of increase is greater than we have experienced before. We have less time to fiddle-fart with the dim and timid, and the stakes have risen since it isn't just a society or civilization that is threatened, it is the whole world. The dark siders that seek to harness their steam age dreams to current threats need to be called out.

Update: Reasoned Out

here's an example of something more like a call out.

Junk Charts criticizes the Doomsday Clock, both from a graphical perspective and conceptual perspective . Is it impossible to be more than 60 minutes away from disaster?

I'm perhaps even more annoyed by the inclusion of climate change into the calculation. . .

The clock is a kind of symbol for existential risk, with 12 corresponding to a serious threat to human survival. But even with the most pessimistic interpretations of climate change it seems hard to get a result bad enough to threaten human survival. Drown Bangladesh, wreck harvests, freeze northern Europe and throw in a couple of unexpected hurricanes, and at the very most you get appaling death tolls and suffering locally, but in no way does it threaten the human species (se crude estimate below). The only way to seriously do that using climate change would be to argue for a total loss of planetary homeostasis producing a venusian hothouse (or a snowball earth), but given that Earth has survived periods of far higher CO2 concentrations that is pretty unlikely. . .

I have not seen any convincing climate change mortality calculations. This one argues for 7-19 million extra child mortalities in sub-saharan africa by 2050 and 12-33 by 2100 (in the mean scenarios), and 12-21 and 22-34 in Asia. This was calculated based on a model of GDP change due to climate change, and then a model forecasting poverty as a function of GDP and finally a model forecasting mortality as a function of poverty. While perhaps the best we can do given present data, I find the treatment highly uncertain. Given that global population curves have surprised people over the last 20 years and how complex economies are, I'm extremely doubtful of GDP predictions 40 years in advance - let alone how they are affected by climate (what will be the climate effects on nanotech businesses? genetically modified crops? hypereconomies?). I'm also pretty convinced that the model doesn't take technological change into account, and even a slight change in the mortality elasticity has enormous effects on the predictions.

The post continues in like vein, reasoning about risk, citing data sources, looking at a fullish picture of possible futures and their probabilities, and proposing ways to improve the Doomsday Clock so that it might actually be useful.
Anyway, let's say that the probabilty of climate change is about 0.5 - here the number might be more representative of how likely we find a particular risk scenario rather than that the climate is going to change. Assuming an excess mortality on the order of 50 million per year (here we should take into account a likely future human population of 8 billion). In that case we get a minute hand 1.5 minutes to 12 and an hour hand pointing at slightly before ten.

This last example probably demonstrates again the weakness of the clock metaphor when dealing with what is essentially a big family of scenarios - different mortalities, different population sizes, different chances of the outcome. Maybe one could make a clock with blurred hands representing the distribution? It is quite possible to put error bars onto the hands. The logarithmic scale also allows risks down to 10-12 to be shown as well as sub-person threats. Maybe this might be a useful complement to the colors I discussed in my warning sign post.

Some could argue that the post misses the point by taking the clock seriously when it is really just an instrument to confirm political biases. Just so, but the clock pretends to be serious and this, then, is a subtle yet effective call out.

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No, I didn't pull my punch.
No, I'm not "walking on eggs."

I said what I meant and meant what I said: some enviros have exaggerated the problem and artificially limited the solution set, but their errors aren't nearly as egregious as those of the denialists.

Go ahead and disagree with that if you want to, but don't try to tell me what I think.

Posted by: Mark Kleiman at January 18, 2007 10:48 AM

As noted, it's the alternate reality effect. That's likely why you can rank these gaffes as being less serious than the gaffes of some of those who express skepticism, and so are branded "denialists".

Posted by: back40 at January 18, 2007 12:05 PM
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