Category Archives: climate change

Cause and effect

I haven’t been too impressed with ethanol fuels for a while. My concern back then was “that if governments make emotional knee-jerk reactions, the cure may be as bad as the disease it is designed to alleviate.”

In that context, the current food crisis is a salutory reminder of the nature of cause and effect.  Food riots have occurred in Egypt and Haiti and other countries, and the World Bank has warned the increased cost of food will push 100 million impoverished people deeper into poverty.

As this Washington Post article makes clear, the causes of the crisis are many, including the Australian drought, high oil prices and world economic trade barriers which obscured the rising food prices, preventing the market from making gradual adjustments.

However, another cause is the move in the US to plant crops for biofuels. Apparently one-fifth to one-quarter of the US corn crop will go to the production of ethanol for biofuel, which has contributed to the rise in global corn prices. And one must question how efficient biofuel is, according to these statistics stated in a New York Sun article

“It takes around 400 pounds of corn to make 25 gallons of ethanol,” Mr. Senauer, also an applied economics professor at Minnesota, said. “It’s not going to be a very good diet but that’s roughly enough to keep an adult person alive for a year.”

Some environmental and charity groups have now turned against biofuels as a result of the current crisis. It just proves that there’s no easy solution, and that proper and considered thought needs to be put into alternative fuel sources. This is why I hate scaremongering; it leads to irrational responses where the outcomes can be disasterous. Hopefully this will cause some thought about other options instead of biofuel.

But more than that, I hope that people will not starve as a result of the heightened food prices.

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Filed under climate change, Economics, environment, ethanol fuel, food, politics, society, USA

Earth Hour – what a crock

I am very pleased that I managed to avoid Earth Hour: what an absolute crock. In fact, I was at a Chinese restaurant at the relevant time. “I wonder if they’ll turn out the lights?” mused my husband. Not a chance, and thank goodness for that. I didn’t see much evidence of participation on the drive home either, but nor did I see much evidence of excessive lighting use either.

I saw the whole thing as a giant publicity stunt with very little real impact on the environment or carbon emissions. It was just a way for middle class greenies to feel good about themselves without actually having to sacrifice much at all.

I can’t help thinking of a documentary I saw recently about strict Mennonites trying to survive in the modern world. The strictest adherents to this sect do not use electricity and use old fashioned means of transport such as horse and buggy. In modern times, this has meant that the communities cannot compete economically. They are not self-sufficient, and cannot generate enough produce, because they do not use modern farming methods and implements. Some communities have decided to use electricity in an effort to survive. Others continue to refuse to use electricity, and keep to the old ways, but it is extremely hard.

Proponents of Earth Hour should try living like strict Mennonites for a month. Turning the lights off for an hour? Pshaw. What a weak gesture. To make a real difference, turn out the electricity for a month, and in a world that has electricity all around you. 

From what I could see, life without electricity was very, very hard. Some of the people were the same age as I, but looked years older, presumably because they had been working in the fields since they were young and because they had many children to care for. One of the most poignant moments for me was when a woman from a community without electricity was discussing dentistry with a man from a community with electricity. I couldn’t help being appalled at the idea of dentistry without electricity. Yowch. I also wonder what kind of training these people had in dentistry; schooling is very limited, and teaching outside the Bible is not allowed.

Interestingly, all the strict Mennonites had an ambivalent attitude to electricity. Those whose communities had introduced it said that in some ways, it made work a lot easier, and it certainly helped their communities be productive enough to survive. On the other hand, they also said it meant that the young men of the village were able to escape and get drunk, and that young people were exposed to television and the outside world a lot more. The innocence of the young had not been able to be preserved in the same way. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that keeping young people from knowledge and learning is wrong: innocence really comes about through ignorance. Obviously, I don’t want my daughter to be exposed to certain kinds of knowledge until I consider that she is old enough to understand it, but I don’t want her to be ignorant either. Another sad vignette concerned a young man who had decided to leave his community, but he did not have enough education to do much outside his community. His ignorance prevented him from having choice.

No, one shouldn’t waste electricity, and we certainly try not to do so in my household. Quite apart from the environmental issues, we can’t afford a big electricity bill. But I do wonder about these people who call for us to “drastically cut our carbon emissions”. How do they propose that we achieve that, precisely? If turning the lights off for an hour has very little or no impact, clearly they would call for more “drastic” measures. Well, I’ll let them try living like Mennonites first. I wonder how long they’d last?

Update

Forgive me, I’m a cynic. But apparently it’s all about branding, darlings. Earth Hour was the brain child of advertising agency Leo Burnett. Now why doesn’t that surprise me? As Peter Foster, the author of the Canadian article linked above, says:

The presence of Leo Burnet [sic] indicates that this is very much about business and branding (a bit ironic for the No Logo crowd, surely). Guidelines about how the Earth Hour brand must be used are available on the WWF Canada Web site, along with the information that: “The Earth Hour tone of voice is human, optimistic, inclusive, passionate and caring. The Brand should never appear to be aggressive or use scare tactics to incite participation.”

How this squares with all the greatest-threat-the-world-has-ever-seen stuff escapes me, but what the hell, this is about business and power, not truth.

I’m sure the WWF is loving all the extra publicity. Not to mention the SMH.

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Filed under climate change, Earth Hour, environment, religion

Stop and take a deep breath…if you still can…

I guess my main problem with the nature of the climate change debate is that I want people to think about things before they do them, and complete proper research. Instead of mucking around with the Kyoto Protocol and carbon credits, I think the focus should be on increasing scientific research into alternative fuels. My concern is that if governments make emotional knee-jerk reactions, the cure may be as bad as the disease it is designed to alleviate.

Accordingly, the results of recent research on ethanol fuel are a salutory reminder for everyone to think carefully and take a deep breath before anything too drastic is done. Mark Jacobson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University published an article in Environmental Science and Technology Online yesterday. The journal’s press release says:

His results…show that ethanol is no silver bullet for health. Switching to E85 blends (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) could result in slightly higher ozone-related mortality, hospitalization, and asthma (9% higher in Los Angeles and 4% higher in the U.S. as a whole), the study finds. Cancer rates would be similar for gasoline and E85.

“It’s true that ethanol does decrease some pollutants, but it also increases some others,” Jacobson says. Compared with gasoline, ethanol tends to produce less benzene and butadiene, but more acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, when burned.

The result: more ozone and about 185 more deaths per year across the U.S., with 125 of those in Los Angeles. Jacobson studied that city in depth because of its ongoing smog problem and found that it has the right atmospheric chemistry to make the ethanol switch particularly problematic.

Previous studies have estimated the pollution and health effects of burning ethanol, but Jacobson says those researchers simply scaled up tailpipe emissions and plugged those numbers into outdated formulas to calculate ozone changes and cancer rates. His atmospheric model, called GATOR-GCMOM, accounted for the transport of tailpipe emissions across the U.S. along with chemical transformations in the atmosphere—key components that had been neglected in previous studies.

The findings suggest that ethanol cannot be promoted simply as a boon to public health, Jacobson adds. Other factors need to be studied and weighed before ethanol use is made widespread, he says, such as greenhouse-gas emissions, U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and the environmental impacts of growing plants for ethanol.

As an asthmatic, I’m not too keen on the sound of the side-effects of ethanol. Let’s look more closely at fuel cells, say I.

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Filed under climate change, environment, ethanol fuel

Credit where credit’s due

Just a little something I’ve been thinking about, thanks to an interesting line of comments on my post on water restrictions.

“Anonymous” got me thinking a little more broadly about making people pay more for services because of environmental concerns. As Anonymous points out, a disadvantage of charging higher prices for water is that the vulnerable in society may end up being affected adversely – retailers pass the costs on to consumers, the rich continue to use exactly the same amount of resources as they always have, and the poor suffer. It’s an important consideration. I tried to cater for it in my suggestions by saying that the most vulnerable in society should have access to concessions, but I admit that this is not perfect.

“Anonymous” also mentions carbon emissions in passing. Which got me thinking about other environmental issues. What about the increasing trend to look at impact on the environment in terms of carbon emissions? George Monbiot has suggested that resources should be allocated on the basis of carbon credits. This (sympathetic) review of his recent book Heat summarises his proposal as follows:

Monbiot recommends the per-capita carbon budgets be allocated nationally. Nations would decide how to parcel out these allocations. Ideally, these could be passed through to individuals. But Monbiot notes the administrative costs involved in having people spend their carbon allowances on tens of thousands of products and services, each one denominated in carbon credits as well as currency. To simplify the process, he recommends a strategy developed by two of his compatriots, Mayer Hillman and David Fleming. They argue that since 40 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions result from the use of fuels and electricity and it is relatively simple to develop a method by which individuals pay for these energy sources with carbon credits, 40 percent of the nation’s carbon allocations should be passed through to individuals. The remaining 60 percent would belong to the government, which might auction them off to generate revenue.

[emphasis added]

You think he’s kidding – carbon credits as the new currency? Well, there are already websites in Australia where the environmentally conscious can offset their carbon emissions by purchasing carbon credits: the company then promises to reduce pollution. And yes, of course there’s a fee involved!

What about transport? Cars, trains, airplanes and the like create a lot of greenhouse emissions. Monbiot argues that air travel is an evil which should be curtailed at all costs: a killer in the skies. But as this article in The Times points out, there’s a lot of hypocrisy by environmental leaders. Some of them have a far more massive carbon footprint that I do. Monbiot himself hasn’t travelled recently, but as Tim Blair points out, he did fly over to Australia in 2003 to promote his book. (The links in this paragraph came from Blair’s post).

Seems to me that there is a conflict here between traditional left wing values and environmentalism. If these kind of initiatives were introduced, I’m predicting market forces would operate in the usual way. The cost of carbon credits for corporations would be passed on to the consumer, which would raise the prices of everything substantially for the average person. And if carbon credits were auctioned off to raise government revenue, it would be the rich who could afford to travel and and to heat their houses during winter. In fact, knowing the way the world works, this would be the inevitable effect of such a scheme. There would be a lot of people profiting from such a scheme as well. All sounds very capitalist to me.

These thoughts just firm up the similarity in my mind between the words “conservative” and “conservationist“. It’s important to consider our impact on the environment. But I am wary of suggestions such as Monbiot’s. It seems to me that the net effect of a carbon credit economy would be to entrench a conservative world order where only the financially well resourced could afford natural resources.

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Filed under carbon credits, climate change, environment, monbiot

An Inconvenient Truth?

My Mum was walking out of the supermarket the other day. She saw a Greenpeace man standing there at the back entrance of the supermarket, handing out leaflets and signing up people up to for membership. Mum walked past and started loading her shopping into the boot of her car. As she loaded the bags into the boot she overheard a snatch of conversation.

“So, you see, climate change has caused these terrible tsunamis,”
the Greenpeace man was earnestly telling a worried young woman, holding out a clipboard and showing her some graphs and pictures.

My dear mother exploded. “That is absolute cr*p!” she exclaimed, turning and confronting the man and the woman. “Tsunamis are caused by tectonic plate movement in the earth’s crust. They happen because of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and things like that!” (If my mother’s word isn’t good enough for you, you can have a look at Wikipedia’s entry on tsunami).

The Greenpeace man and then young woman turned, surprised, then turned their backs on her and ignored her. The Greenpeace man kept explaining the terrible consequences of climate change, while the woman signed up for membership.

Don’t let inconvenient things like scientific facts get in the way of a good scaremongering story! An inconvenient truth indeed! This is the kind of thing which really gives me the pip about some elements in the Green lobby. I don’t mind people espousing environmental points of view, as long as they have based their view on scientific evidence. I also like it when people have at least considered the other side of the debate, not just rejected it out of hand. Yes, I’m my mother’s daughter, and proud of it. If I had been with her, I would have applauded her loudly.

I remember that when I was studying Geography in Year 9, we had to watch a video where Rob Gell told us that in 10 years time, the sea level would rise by 1 metre. I was horrified! I imagined wading around the house in despair. I note it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t want to give away my age (allow this Legal Eagle some modesty) but I was in Year 9 well over 10 years ago. As a result, I don’t just swallow this stuff whole, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. Could people get totally overwrought and see the apocalypse where there is none…? All I have to say is Y2K.

I have had arguments with members of lobby groups before, who have become very upset when I questioned the facts which formed the basis of their campaign. Once they realise that they haven’t got a leg to stand on (factually speaking), they usually fall back on some pathetic excuse like, “But at least it’s raising awareness of the problem, it doesn’t matter that it’s not quite accurate. The important thing is to promote change.” I’m afraid I don’t agree. If you promote change on a basis which is false, this may promote inappropriate change which is costly, useless, or even harmful to society. I am aware that the notion of “scientific truth” is mutable, but you have to distinguish between a thesis which is highly likely and supported by evidence (ie, tsunami are caused by earthquakes and tectonic plate activity) and a thesis which is not based on empirical evidence (ie, tsunami are caused by “climate change” – what does that mean anyway?).

I guess I’m a follower of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science. The essence of Popper’s theory of “falsibility” is that you can never actually confirm a scientific thesis, but if you disprove your thesis, it is decisive: it shows the thesis to be false. What can a scientist conclude then? A scientist can only conclude that for the time being the facts seem to be consistent with her thesis and thus her thesis has not been disproven. So, if you follow this reasoning, as a scientist, you can never confirm that climate change is definitely happening. If you are a good scientist, all you can say is that for the time being, the facts seem to be consistent with your thesis.

The whole point of science is to question your thesis and test it rigourously, searching for more facts. Given this, there is a worrying trend to shout down people who dare question the thesis of climate change. Recently, in an environmental blog called Grist, a post suggested that people who deny climate change should be subject to Nuremberg style trials as quasi-war criminals. Okay, that’s only one guy, I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but it’s still a pretty worrying opinion. He’s a zealot who doesn’t understand the way in which science works. If you use Popper’s theory of “falsibility”, the best way to prove a scientific thesis is to try to disprove it.

I hate the fact that climate change science has become politicised. The “Left” accept climate change, the “Right” deny it. For me, it is not a matter of politics. I don’t think I have enough data to unequivocally accept or deny climate change. What do I mean by this?

Let’s say that it’s a sunny day today. And it’s a really hot day for the next 10 days after. Does this sample of 11 days mean that the Earth is warming up? Don’t be silly, Legal Eagle, you say, it’s coming into summer in Australia now. You really are being facecious. Well, you only know that we’re coming into summer because we know the bigger picture of how the seasons work. But what if we didn’t? We might think the Earth really was warming up. I think climate change science is a bit like this, but instead of days, let’s make it 10 year periods. We have only been keeping detailed records in Australia for 100 years or so. Maybe the last 50 out of 100 years have been getting warmer. Or even the last 100 out of 100 years? But is there some 1000 year cycle of which we are not aware? Or even a 10,000 year cycle? Is it just a statistical anomaly? Now, I’m the first to admit I’m not a statistician, but it seems to me that there is simply not enough information to know whether there is a pattern, or whether any rise in temperature is as a result of man-made causes.

Perhaps if there is a rise in temperature, it is meant to happen? For example, during medieval times in England, temperatures everywhere were a lot warmer, but there was a mini “ice age” around Elizabethan times. This which explains why Elizabethan England had to enact the Poor Laws – beggars and poor people couldn’t sleep out in the open any more, because they’d freeze to death.

I would like all these questions to be discussed openly and debated. I think it is necessary and important for us to question climate change and the science on which it is based if we wish to make a thorough scientific analysis. I hate scaremongering – this is why I don’t like radio “shock jocks”, fire and brimstone preachers and politicians – they all use fear to propel us to make decisions. What a terrible basis for a decision!

All this is not to say that we should just go and trash our environment. I think our government should think about environmental measures which we could take to protect our country and our world (rather than refusing to think about it at all and hoping it will all just go away). Whether climate change is happening or not, of course we should try to minimise our impact on the environment, and of course we should try and look after the world in which we live. I think minimising harmful emissions is a great idea (and, as an asthmatic, I’m happy with any measures reducing car emissions). We should also research and put resources into developing alternative energy sources. However, we should think about it carefully and logically. For example, solar cells may be a great way of harnessing energy in an environmentally friendly manner. But let’s think about the bigger picture. How much energy does it take to make a solar cell? Do we have to put in more energy to make a solar cell than we are likely to get out of it? What kind of pollutants are involved in the making of a solar cell? How long does the solar cell last for? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but we shouldn’t just decide on an emotional basis that solar cells are the way to go, and then find out that we have created a whole new set of problems once we implement them.

I worry about the scaremongering element to discussions on the issue of climate change because it means our responses will be based on fear and emotion, not reason. I think we need to think carefully and logically about what kind of choices and constructive changes we want to make to our society. The choices we make shouldn’t be made on the sole basis of emotion, and they certainly should not be made on the basis of incorrect information.

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Filed under climate change, environment, politics