Thursday, February 26, 2009

Musings on the "Environmental Debate"

There's so much utter rubbish talked about in relation to "the environment" it makes me want to scream. Why when there is almost total unanimity in the scientific community about, say, climate change, is there a debate going on at all?

1. The environmental debate impacts on wider political agendas

Man is inquisitive. For centuries we have striven to discover new lands, new inventions and new ways of doing things. We are also instinctively greedy having necessarily evolved through a couple of million years an urge to acquire resources when they're available in case there's a famine around the corner. The idea of environmental limits is anathema to that enterprising spirit, aspiration and natural greed.

Many of the shriller climate sceptics appear to be driven by the idea that climate change has been invented by left-leaning Governments in order to limit enterprise and raise taxes. Of course for that to be the case the scientific consensus must also be constructed by Governments who (apparently) only fund research programmes which support the notion of climate change - overlooking the fact that political opinion has lagged behind scientific opinion for years and years. Or maybe both have conspired together...

On the other side of the debate there are the deep greens and their political allies in the anti-capitalist movement, not only get the idea of environmental limits, but embrace them as it fits with their wider value system. While I'm all for people pointing out what is wrong with the modern capitalist system (and it's doing a fine job of flagging that up for itself just at the minute), many commentators fall into the trap of being against everything. They will deride technological or economic efforts to cut carbon emissions as greenwash or an outright con and undermine some of the most promising 'quick wins' as ineffective. This creates paralysis in the debate - should we be recycling if even (some) greens deride it as ineffective? The hair shirt approach also tends to switch off the majority of people in the country - the very people we have to reach to move the agenda forwards.

2. Global environmental issues are very, very complicated

If someone dumps oil in a village pond and the fish die, we can all understand that. If sulphur dioxide from a power station in the UK converts to acid rain over the North Sea and kills trees in Norway, most people can get their head around that. But to start to get your head around the mechanics of, say, climate change - extra carbon dioxide traps more heat from the sun (but only what has been absorbed and re-emitted by the earth), but some carbon dioxide is absorbed by carbon sinks and some is emitted due the rising heat, and how the heat affects a whole series of weather systems, climatic patterns, ice sheets and sea levels - well that's really, really complicated. And then there's the complex patterns of production, consumption and related economics that lead to those carbon emissions... There is no simple connection between cause and effect.

This throws up three problems:

a. The man in the street can't easily get his head around it. In fact no-one can get their head around all of it - I've been interested for 2 decades and a professional for 11 years - I learn something new every day, but if somebody, say, challenges me on the Vostok ice core samples, I'm stuck (I do solutions, not analysis of the problem).

b. It is very hard to make judgement calls - Should waste be recycled or incinerated? How much is a Siberian tiger worth in kg carbon dioxide (ie if you had to choose)? Does tree planting offset carbon emissions? These sorts of questions are almost impossible to answer from a purely objective point of view.

c. It is very easy for anyone with a particular agenda to cherry pick a couple of facts and present a superficially straightforward conclusion that suits that agenda.

3. The modern press answers to no-one

"Recycling is a waste of time!", "Organic food exposed!", "Eco-friendly lightbulbs give you cancer!". A significant chunk of the press loves nothing more than to rubbish the 'current big thing', or, in the case of the Daily Mail, to persuade its readers that the country is going to hell on a handcart (pushed along by sundry foreigners).

Journalists rarely have to answer for misleading, incorrect or frankly fictional statements. The prime scourge of the climate change lobby, as he would see it, is Christopher Booker in the Telegraph. I went through one of his columns with my father who had read it and thought it had some merit. Booker based his attack on the International Panel on Climate Change's conclusions on two blogs. We looked them up. The first, written by two scientists, criticised how the IPCC handled some data but stated clearly that this did not prove that climate change was not man made (Booker omitted to mention that statement). The second was written by an ex-TV weatherman with no apparent qualifications in meteorology or climatology. So Booker dismisses the views of 97.4% of published qualified climatologists in favour of the musings of a TV presenter. The TV guy might be right, of course, but it's more than a bit unlikely. This 'analysis' would not pass muster as an undergraduate dissertation, but is printed in the best selling serious newspaper in the UK.

And everyone feels qualified to comment, no matter how toe-curling the results. I love Simon Hoggart's satirical take on politics in the Guardian but why he feels he can and has to repeatedly make naive comments on global carbon emissions and windpower in his Saturday columns is beyond me.

And people believe what they read. And it comes out in statements like "They're saying now..."


We have people who have an axe to grind (point 1), an opportunity to make it sound convincing (point 2), and a huge audience (point 3). Hence we appear to have a debate when there isn't one.

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