The Obscurer

Category: Environment

If I Can’t Change Your Mind

It takes a lot of courage to perform a public volte-face, and so the Daily Telegraph deserves much credit for its leading article this weekend on the heated matter of global warming.

But it is time to acknowledge that, for whatever combination of reasons, temperatures are rising. We do not know by how much they will rise in the next few years: that, in itself, is one of the worst problems. A 4°C rise could turn large parts of southern Europe into desert. European politicians have tied themselves to a 2°C target, but the scientists think this will be exceeded. One extremely worrying development is the fact that sea levels seem to be rising twice as fast as had been forecast by the United Nations only two years ago. Already, the Thames Barrier is being raised more often to protect London from flooding.

Conceding that global warming is a reality is quite a reversal for the Telegraph, so one would expect the editorial line to be one of contrition, to offer some sense of humility, to include a graceful acceptance that the newspaper has previously been wrong on this issue; no? Well, er, no. Not really.

The British instinctively mistrust zealotry, and the debate over climate change has for too long been dominated by self-righteous, finger-wagging puritans who present the challenge of rising temperatures as primarily a moral issue. Most scientists believe that the acceleration of the rate of rising temperatures can be explained only by economic activity; yet this consensus is obscured, not illuminated, by the way that the minority of scientists who believe that we are pulling naturally out of an Ice Age are shouted down as heretics.

Ah. So the blame for the Telegraph taking so long to see the light on climate change lies with those who have been right all along, because they cruelly pointed out that those who are wrong are wrong. I see. Now personally I could never say categorically that anthropomorphic global warming is a fact, because I am not a scientist; but for the very reason that I am not a scientist I have always felt it prudent to give credence to the overwhelming majority of scientific opinion on the matter, that man-made climate change is a genuine concern. The Daily Telegraph, on the other hand, seems to have instinctively taken against the messenger and so the message, as have many others. But while it is certainly true that some environmentalists can be too shrill in their propagandising, and indeed some may even be the watermelons of legend, you could easily say the same about any argument; that there will always exist some zealous, unreasonable clique who will be only too happy to denounce and demonise their opponents. This fact applies as equally to those who have criticised the concept of global warming and who have readily ridiculed and condemned its proponents; and many of those critics have found a comfortable home within the pages of the Daily Telegraph itself. After all, it is not exactly illuminating debate for the Telegraph to characterise environmentalists and mainstream climatologists as “self-righteous, finger-wagging puritans”, even as they have begun to accept their findings. As grown-ups, shouldn’t we all by now have learned to look at the substance of someone’s argument rather than to engage in ad-hominem dismissals of any uncomfortable theories?

Anyway, while now accepting the problem, the Telegraph is somewhat shakier on working out a solution.

For too long, issue of global warming has been hijacked by the bossiest people in society: politicians, lobbyists and clergy who are trying to micro-manage our behaviour. The idea that Western householders can contribute to the lowering of global temperatures by “buying food with less packaging” and “driving at a lower speed” (to quote two tips from the climate change fanatics at the BBC) is palpable nonsense.

[…]

Temperatures may respond to a drastic cut in carbon emissions from the major economies. We must pray that they do. How that cut can be achieved is one of the most difficult questions facing political leaders. There is no consensus, but one must be found: 

Damn those politicians for trying to sort out the problem by telling us what to do. Instead they should…er…reach a consensus and sort out the problem, just like that! One problem the Telegraph has is that in having just arrived late – huffing and puffing – to the party, they are playing catch-up and trying to adjust to the new reality while still hanging on to their cherished beliefs. Perhaps they could take lessons from those who did an about-turn on global warming a wee while ago when they discovered that there was a delicious irony in the fact that nuclear power, many an environmentalist’s bete-noire, could be seen as a saviour in the battle against rising sea levels. For the Telegraph their world has been shifting as they have agreed that it is warming, and they need to cling to something; and in this case it is the belief that their beloved capitalism is ace and that governments are foolish. Ergo the title of the Telegraph’s leader, “Capitalism can lead the way on climate change”.

There is probably no alternative to an internationally co-ordinated effort to reduce carbon emissions. But that does not mean that the engine of change will be driven by civil servants. Capitalism accelerated the rise in global temperatures; capitalism should slow it down, by developing the energy-efficient technology that we are going to need in any case in order to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, there is much to agree with here; the world economy is, by and large, built on a capitalistic market model and so it makes sense to utilise it and the immense power inherent in it; but will it really happen without those dratted civil servants? For example, profit maximisation surely suggests using the cheapest method available for generating power, which in a truly free market often means burning coal, just about the most carbony fuel going. Only by governments taxing carbon or introducing a cap-and-trade system can cleaner technologies be made nominally cheaper and so more cost effective for companies and power generators to employ. Despite the Telegraph’s ire this demands effective government and skilled civil servants to set up a workable system that does not simply create damagingly skewed incentives and disastrous unforeseen consequences. For the very reason that the Telegraph lauds the easy workings of the free market and denounces the nightmare of a planned economy, so the job of those berated bureaucrats to create a system that disincentives the use of fossil fuels while still leaving a functioning and efficient market is a hellish tricky one. A bit of gratitude for those civil servants wouldn’t go amiss you would think, but then perhaps the Telegraph doesn’t know what the hell it is talking about. After all…

This is a time for innovation not nagging. Global warming is a challenge for governments, scientists and, above all, businesses. It is not the responsibility of householders, who should be able retire for the night leaving their televisions on standby with a clear conscience. Planet Earth will not notice.

As a proud defender of capitalism’s honour it would be nice to think the Daily Telegraph has even an inkling about how the system works, and why it can be such a boon. Capitalists will not overwhelmingly take the actions the Telegraph now wishes out of some sense of altruism or philanthropy, they will do so only if such actions make a profitable return. Capitalism works not because producers’ and consumers’ wants align, but when the fruits of the self-interest of the former happen to coincide with the desires of the latter, or as Adam Smith so famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. So, if households don’t try to play their part in reducing their own CO2 emissions, and in doing so request “green” electricity, low-energy fridges and – yes – televisions with a more efficient standby button (or preferably even an off switch), then where is the demand going to come from for these potentially planet-saving products? And if there is no demand for such low-carbon goods and services, why the hell will those noble capitalists waste their time and money on producing them?

The Shorter Daily Telegraph leading article then reads as follows: we need to acknowledge that global warming is a reality while somehow maintaining our ideological stance; but while we’ve changed our tune we still don’t have a fucking clue.

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Herbert And The Watermelon Of Doom

“Watermelon” they shout, and the “they” in question are idiots. But there is perhaps just a nugget, nay a kernel, perhaps a smidgeon or even a grain of truth in that insult what “they” so easily hurl.

It’s a good term, is “Watermelon”. For those who aren’t in the know it is used by some to describe an old-style socialist who masquerades as an environmentalist in order to surreptitiously campaign for their sneaky statist goals; they are green on the outside, red on the inside, geddit? And they will exist, such folk; no doubt the term can be accurately applied to some knackered comrades who have surmised that the best route to achieving their dream of getting government to muck everything up is by going in via the green back door, just as during the ‘eighties the Labour party enjoyed a rapid conversion from being a broadly anti- into a broadly pro-EU party in order to palm continental-style social policies into Britain under the noses of the Thatcher government.

But I think such things can be overstated. I reckon most environmentalists are naturally of a more leftist bent in the first place, for whatever reason. It is just the way things are, and I don’t pretend to understand why, but some issues do seem to exhibit some strange, almost symbiotic relationship with a particular political wing for no obvious reason. While lefties tend to be more environmentally conscious, righties are seemingly more likely to be anti-abortion. This makes no sense as far as I am concerned, but as we have seen this week there is evidence all around.

But if we at least acknowledge that some people are genuine Watermelons, that they are not just greens who happen to be red but socialists who feel that the best way to advance their cause is by posing as environmentalists, then where is the balance, the yin to the yang, that equal but opposite reaction; or perhaps the even greater reaction? In other words, where is the term to describe what is for me a far more likely scenario; of someone who is a free-market anti-government type who opposes environmentalism instinctively, not because of the science (such people are rarely scientists) but simply because the response to climate change implies a reliance on government action that they simply cannot countenance? They are the mirror of Watermelons in that while they may pose as honest brokers simply putting an alternative view to all that shrieking global warming propaganda, in reality they will grab hold of any rogue paper going that shows that there isn’t a problem, so to loudly pronounce that all is well and government can stay in its box, as their dogma demands. Their creed of minimal state intervention has no answers to the problems raised by concerns such as climate change, and so it must be denied for its own sake.

In the interests of fairness then we need an antonym for Watermelon, but what should it be? Cantaloupe? Dry Lemon? I reckon a nice acronym would do; TWiTs, perhaps, although I can’t think what those initials would stand for. But this surely cannot be beyond us, and once we have solved this problem and identified the Watermelons’ natural enemy then perhaps we can think of a moniker for those (other?) people who, whilst complaining about the welfare and nanny states and the dependency culture they have spawned breeding feckless scroungers who expect the state to wait on them hand and foot, then object that they themselves are far too busy to even sort their own fucking rubbish into a few simple piles prior to collection for recycling and want the council to come along and do it all for them. Because they’re out there too; I just know it.

Jakers!

George Monbiot seems to have a rather individual view of how the media reports environmental issues. A few weeks back, when reviewing Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the UN (I have no idea why), he stated that from 1992 onwards the BBC and Channel 4

purged environmental programmes from the schedules. I suspect they saw them as counter-aspirational and, in Channel 4’s case, bad for business. From then on, they could broadcast only furious attacks on environmentalism, such as Channel 4’s series Against Nature and BBC2’s Scare Stories. Most of the newspapers, with an eye on the interests of their proprietors and advertisers, followed their example.

Environmental campaigns – especially the mobilisation against the roads programme Thatcher launched – proliferated, but, shut out by the media, the issue soon fell off the political agenda.

This appears to me to be rather at odds with reality. Environmental issues are regularly featured throughout the media, and opponents of climate change rarely make an appearance. Indeed, the debate has largely moved on from whether climate change is happening to why climate change is happening (whether or not it is influenced by human behaviour), and what can or should be done about it.

In this debate, the idea of a return to nuclear power seems to be gaining some currency due to nuclear’s low levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Fans of nuclear power famously include the unlikely figure of James Lovelock, founder of the Gaia green movement. Fair enough, you may think, and perhaps the nuclear option should be considered; it certainly shouldn’t be excluded from the debate.

However, a recent edition of Coast on BBC2, which has reached the north of Scotland, included a feature on Dounray power station. There the presenter stated that Britain is expected to produce enough nuclear waste over the next 100 years to fill at least five Albert Halls. This is where we stand with our current, somewhat diminished nuclear programme.

Now, for me, this is a real worry. After all, at the moment, to the best of my knowledge, we have only one Albert Hall. Just to deal with our current output of nuclear toxins we are looking at having to build another four over the next century.

So what happens if, as has been suggested, we greatly expand our nuclear industry? How many Albert Halls will we then have to build? Are we going to have to face constructing hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Albert Halls, flooding our landscape, filling our valleys and towering over our dales, scaring areas of natural beauty on order to contain contaminated junk?

“Jakers!” as my good friend Piggley Winks would say; it is certainly worth thinking about. There are clearly no easy solutions to this problem of global warming.

Environmental Arithmetic

Apparently, the weather for the rest of this month is likely to be “spring-like”, following that cold snap last weekend. It has certainly confused a ceanothus bush near where I live, which already has some of its bright blue horse-cake blossom on its branches. But nowadays, what is meant by spring-like?

My wife was born on the 21st of March; the first day of spring. On the day she was born, so the story goes, her father was sledging in Lyme Park. Two years ago, on her birthday, we were sat by the banks of Windermere, having a drink in the beer garden of the Wateredge Inn, Ambleside, on a sweltering hot day.

Is this evidence of global warming? Obviously not, not by itself. I should say now that I am not a fully signed up member of the environmental brigade; I do think that spring is getting earlier and winter milder, as many phrenologists suggest, but I do wonder at times if this is just due to getting older. Everyone thinks winters were colder and snowier when they were young. On the other hand, I still find myself tutting when I hear global warming referred to on the news as if it were pure scientific fact; I know that there is still debate in the scientific community on the matter. What surprises me more, though, is the number of non-scientists who are absolutely convinced that global warming is a fantasy, that it is “junk science”. Even as a non-scientist myself I know enough to believe that the basic theory makes sense, even if the evidence itself may not be conclusive.

Some people argue that there is nothing to suggest that global warming is a problem, but this is nonsense; there is rucks of evidence. Whether or not you believe it is another matter, and of course, there is also evidence which suggests that all is well. I am not qualified to argue the science, but I do wonder why people as unqualified as I am seem so sure that there is nothing to worry about. For some people, it seems all it takes if for them to hear “environmentalists warn that…” and they have heard enough. They already disagree with what the environmentalists think, whatever it is they are about to say.

It is argued that the temperature of the Earth is constantly changing over time, and so why are we concerned? It is true, of course, that the Earth at times has been much warmer than it is now; but as I understand it, one of the reasons the Earth cooled down was that there was a massive growth of forests across the planet billions of years ago; in other words, the reverse of the greenhouse effect which is currently the concern. But even then, just because the Earth temperature fluctuates, does that not mean that we can seek to influence it, if that is for the benefit of mankind? Or should we just sit around and accept it; perhaps we should tear down our flood defences while we are at it, on the basis that if it floods it floods and it is all a perfectly natural state of affairs?

Another often heard argument is a simple one; that of course global warming doesn’t exist, or if it does then it is a natural phenomenon, because it is ridiculous to think than mankind can effect his environment to such a degree. But why not? We have it in our power to blow the world up many times over, to chop down every tree and to use up every natural resource on the planet. Of course we can effect the environment; you don’t surely need to be a scientist to see that.

George Monbiot, who, unlike me, certainly is an environmentalists, wrote an interesting article regarding a couple of studies often cited by the critics of global warming. One is the “petition produced in 1998 by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and ‘signed by over 18,000 scientists'”. This, according to David Bellamy, shows that “the link between the burning of fossil fuels and global warming is a myth”. This petition is often produced to debunk global warming; sadly, according to Monbiot, the signatories include Geri Halliwell and (even more bizarrely) the cast of M*A*S*H.

“Its petition was attached to what purported to be a scientific paper, printed in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, the paper had not been peer-reviewed or published in any scientific journal. Anyone could sign the petition, and anyone did: only a handful of the signatories are experts in climatology, and quite a few of them appear to have believed that they were signing a genuine paper. And yet, six years later, this petition is still being wheeled out to suggest that climatologists say global warming isn’t happening.”

Later in the same article Monbiot refers to another report, by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician. This report does not deny that global warming is happening, or indeed that it can be prevented, just that it is not worth bothering. Monbiot writes that “Lomborg claimed to have calculated that global warming will cause $5 trillion of damage, and would cost $4 trillion to ameliorate. The money, he insisted, would be better spent elsewhere.” Monbiot counters that

“The idea that we can attach a single, meaningful figure to the costs incurred by global warming is laughable. Climate change is a non-linear process, whose likely impacts cannot be totted up like the expenses for a works outing to the seaside. Even those outcomes we can predict are impossible to cost. We now know, for example, that the Himalayan glaciers which feed the Ganges, the Bramaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the other great Asian rivers are likely to disappear within 40 years. If these rivers dry up during the irrigation season, then the rice production which currently feeds over one third of humanity collapses, and the world goes into net food deficit.”

Now, unlike George Monbiot, I do not know what will happen to the Himalayan glaciers in the next 40 years, and I dare say another study will contradict this claim. And in fairness to Lomborg, his article in The Times does argue for action on global warming; just that the Kyoto Protocol is not a particularly effective way of doing it. But he also admits that some people “only pay attention to half of what I say about global warming”. They find his cost/benefit analysis argues against action; this is all they need to decide we should not bother to tackle global warming.

And I think it is this attitude, that people can’t be bothered, that explains such antagonism in the face of common sense. People can’t be bothered to be careful about non-renewable resources like oil, and so we just rattle along using up resources as if there is no tomorrow; but there will be. People can’t be bothered to recycle plastics and metals, even though everyone knows these things cannot last forever. People can’t be bothered not to dump things in a landfill, even thought it is clear we cannot carry on doing this. And I am as bad; by son is a little landfill site all of his own thanks to his nappies; although considering the contents of a used nappy, you would thing a biodegradable one would be an ideal compost (I even saw someone once arguing against recycling and for landfill, saying that landfill is just a type of compost; but I am not sure what nutrient value the land would get from an empty tin of beans and an old bottle of Coke wrapped inside a bin liner). So people are not bothered; they don’t want to go to the bottle bank, they don’t want to stop driving their cars, they are happy to use 12 carrier bags per trip to Tesco, they don’t want any further costs put on businesses, and they certainly don’t want to be told what to do by a load of sandal-wearing doom-mongers talking about how many of our essential natural resources will start drying up by the middle of the century.

Personally, the prospect of fossil fuels running out is not too much of a concern for me; it’s not as if it is a thing of beauty which we need to keep in the ground for posterity, and as it runs out and it becomes more difficult to extract, I would imagine the price will rise until the cost of alternative, renewable resources becomes more attractive. As more people switch to renewables then economies of scale will lead to price cuts for solar panels, wind turbines and so on. I may be being naive, but with a bit of luck I think we will be alright.

But just a minute; what am I talking about? When fossil fuels run out and we are all forced to switch to renewable resources? When that happens, won’t it mean that the alleged main cause of global warming will have disappeared? Panic over? That makes sense doesn’t it? Is this all a little too simple, or have I missed something?