Category Archives: environment

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

Conservation = Conservatism?

I think my blog posts on environmentalism may have surprised readers who know me well. They have certainly drawn a lot of comment. After all, I want a more socially responsible government. Why then, am I not an avid supporter of the Green movement? The Greens want us to look after our environment. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? One friend said she was surprised to see that I was so conservative.

Actually, I believe that it is the Green movement is conservative. This is not necessarily a bad thing. My problem with the Green movement is not the fact that they are conservative per se, but the way in which they make many problems a matter of faith rather than a matter of logic. This post has been percolating away in my head for a while, but it popped to the forefront of my mind after I got involved in a brief online “debate” with Mr Lefty the other day.

There are two reasons why I am not comfortable with the Green movement:

  1. I perceive that many in the Green movement base their policies not on fact or scientific data, but on what they want to believe. It is almost like a religious faith. They do not have a clear understanding of the way in which scientific methodology operates (they say there is incontrovertible proof that certain things are occurring, when such proof just can’t be provided). They are scared of science and “chemicals”.
  2. I believe that some Greens are actually conservative rather than progressive. In fact, I would say that the extreme Greens are reactionary. As can be seen from the link, the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy describes a reactionary as “an extremely conservative person or position that not only resists change but seeks to return to the “good old days” of an earlier social order.”

Of course, I realise that the “Green movement” covers a vast spectrum of belief. I don’t want to say all Greens are like this: but enough of them are like this to worry me.

Now, there are some good things about being conservative. In part, being conservative means that you don’t squander what you have, you look after your resources, you look after your land and you are mindful of past tradition and society (including indigenous traditions). Would anyone deny that these things are part of being a Green? I think it is a good idea to try and husband the earth’s natural resources better. I am also a strong supporter of looking after our natural environment (let’s not eat whales, let’s not wantonly destroy rainforests and rare bird species, let’s not leave awful contaminants in the soil etc).

However, it seems to me that the Green movement is permeated by “scientific illiteracy”. I should disclose my biases here. I was raised in a household where science was a religion. Dinnertable conversation might be on the theory of relativity, Popper’s notion of falsibility, the amazing properties of carbon, Kekule’s dreams about benzene rings or black holes. I was always aware, as Democritus hypothesised so long ago, that reality is atoms and the void. Whenever I hear someone say “but it’s got chemicals in it”, I wince. I’ve got news for “chemo-phobes”. Humans are one giant chemical reaction, an amazing sentient collection of atoms. Water is a chemical, air is a bunch of different chemicals, grass is an amazing array of organic chemicals etc, etc…

I’ve talked before about what I perceive as a lack of scientific analysis by many of those who espouse environmental causes. The example I gave in a previous post was of a Greenpeace man telling a woman that global warming caused tsunami.

Why is it always presumed “natural” means better or healthier? What about organic heavy metals like arsenic and mercury? What about plant poisons like curare and belladonna? What about the nerve poison, botulism, produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum? (Yes, it’s the one in Botox). What about aflotoxins, which grow in peanuts, nuts and the like? For goodness sakes, radioactive elements such as uranium occur naturally as well…it’s all part of nature, red in tooth and claw. It doesn’t even have to be a toxin to be fatal – I’m severely allergic to the “natural proteins” in tree nuts.

To be fair, it’s not just environmentalists who lack scientific knowledge: many people are unsure about science, particularly where scary chemical names are featured with a bunch of awful statistics. What about the famously dangerous chemical, dihydrogen monoxide? Please click on the link and see if you have been exposed to this chemical…

The thing that concerns me is that people are easily scared, and if an official “Climate Change Scientist” says that the end is nigh, many will believe it. My heart sank when I read the recent doomsaying reports about global warming. People are going to die from heat related diseases! Dengue fever will rise! Coral reefs will be bleached! Jeez Louise! Why are all of the effects of climate change be said to be uniformly bad? When I lived in the UK, every winter, elderly people would die as a result of the cold. Presumably this wouldn’t happen any more if the temperature rose. It worries me when reports are so one-sided, and I start to wonder about the agenda behind them.

It is often said that those who doubt climate change have links with the oil industry and are biased. What about the bias of climate change scientists? Their grants, their careers, and their standing all depend on establishing the reality of climate change. Somehow they’re supposed to be selfless and not interested in their livelihood, whereas those other nasty scientists denying climate change are totally different? Perhaps we shouldn’t just swallow all this stuff without question. We should be allowed to debate it. I do not believe that the anthropogenic causes of climate change are as clear-cut as these reports portray them.

Many people seem to want to believe everything the doomsayers say. But it’s not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of science, and as I said in my previous post, science involves questioning the facts and advancing different hypotheses. I hate the way in which many Greens take a holier-than-thou attitude – someone who merely questions climate change and the Green agenda is instantly written off as some kind of fascist.

Which leads me beautifully into my next point. Is it me who is the fascist, or are some environmentalists the real fascists? As Mr Lefty commented, the Green Party in Australia is are libertarian in relation to sexuality and drugs. (That’s the progressive bit of the Greens). I’m happy with the former, but less comfortable with the latter, which is why I suspect I came out as “moderate right” in terms of “traditional values” when I did the OzPolitics test.

However, he then asserted that the desire to live a sustainable way is “hardly reactionary”. This is not defensible. There is an incontrovertible reactionary element to the Green movement. The Green movement is permeated by a longing for earlier days, when we didn’t use evil machinery and engines fired by fossil fuels. It often looks admiringly at indigenous societies who lived in a sustainable manner, and regrets the rise of rampant consumerism. To an extent, I am sympathetic to this aim, but within reason.

Some Greens wish to turn back to nature, and wind back the clock to a time when the world was less populated, less mechanized, less technologically dependent. In fact, some of my acquaintances who are environmentalists wish to stop development altogether, no matter if this causes people to die of starvation or disease. One girl once said to me that I’d have to throw away my asthma spray, as it was a blight on the environment. I said that I would die. Her response was “Sometimes we all have a price to pay”. What does this look like? “An extremely conservative person or position that not only resists change but seeks to return to the “good old days” of an earlier social order.” Yes sirree, that’s reactionary.

The Greens are suggesting that we should all curtail our greenhouse gas emissions. Where do greenhouse gas emissions come from?

  • burning of fossil fuels (creating higher emissions of CO2);
  • deforestation (meaning less CO2 is absorbed by plants in photosynthesis); and
  • farming (emissions of methane, NO through fertilizers).

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, that the evil dihydrogen monoxide is one of the principal greenhouse gases, but it’s very hard to take into account as a variable as its presence in the atmosphere varies so much.

The main way in which we can reduce carbon emissions is to burn less fossil fuels (less cars, less trucks, less planes) and ensure more areas are forested. This means we can all use cars, trucks and planes less. In fact, environmentalists such as George Monbiot argue that air travel is an evil which should be curtailed at all costs. I don’t think people have really thought through the logic of such a statement – looks great on paper, not necessarily so good in practice.

Monbiot has suggested that resources should be allocated on the basis of carbon credits. A review of his 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]

My fear is that if carbon trading was introduced, the price of everything would be raised substantially for the average person, as corporations tend to pass on extra costs involved in transporting goods. Many people would lose their jobs. The poor would suffer. 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. The net effect of this could be to create a tremendous gap between “haves” and “have-nots”, with a new “carbon-friendly” elite. Any scheme would have to be introduced very carefully.

As I said above, conservatism is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a lot to be said for conserving one’s resources, being frugal and harking back to traditional ways of doing things. But I just want any measures which are taken to be logical and not based on scaremongering and fear. And what I really do not want to see is people suffering as a result of ill-thought out measures to deal with predictions which may or may not be accurate.

Postscript

Catallaxy has an interesting post on the economics of a carbon trading regime and the recent report of the Productivity Commission on the matter. A section of the key points are reproduced below:

There is a growing consensus that the anthropogenic contribution to climate change could pose serious risks to future generations and that coordinated action is needed to manage these risks. However, uncertainty continues to pervade the science and geopolitics and, notwithstanding the Stern Review, the economics. This is leading to divergent views about when and how much abatement effort should be undertaken.To be fully efficient and effective, greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement must occur globally. Effectiveness increases with the coverage of emissions and of emitting countries. Below a certain threshold, any abatement action will have little effect.

It is in Australia’s interest to participate in the design of a multilateral framework – for example, pressing for:

  • emission caps for all major emitting countries that are supported by strong verification arrangements, and can react flexibly to new information;
  • allowance to gain credits for emission reduction projects in other countries and also flexibility in rules on land cover change.

Independent action by Australia to substantially reduce GHG emissions, in itself, would deliver barely discernible climate benefits, but could be nationally very costly. Such action would therefore need to rest on other rationales.

  • Facilitating transition to an impending lower emissions economy is the strongest rationale for independent action, but it is contingent on the imminent emergence of an extensive international response.

Current climate change policy in Australia is a disjointed, fragmented patchwork of measures across sectors and jurisdictions. The potential impact on resource allocation (for example, firm location) underscores the need for a national approach.

A national approach should be based on GHG pricing – through an emissions tax or an emissions trading scheme. Due to its administrative simplicity, a tax has some merit as a transitional tool and could be introduced in a revenue neutral way.

If it were decided to introduce a national emissions trading scheme:

  • to constrain costs, the emissions price should be kept modest via a ‘safety valve’ until a multilateral regime that comprised major emitting countries was in place;
  • to limit adjustment costs and international relocation of production, it may be appropriate to mitigate the most adverse competitive impacts on energy-intensive producers until an international regime is in place;
  • existing regulations that substitute for emissions trading should be discontinued.

It concerns me that the Australian economy could be crippled by a purely ideological decision to commit to the reduction of greenhouse gases, when there would be very little net benefit to the environment or Australia. As the key points state, our emissions are so small in global terms as to be of limited impact unless there is some kind of concerted global effort.

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Filed under carbon credits, environment, politics

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

The New Puritans

I think the present water restrictions in Victoria are ridiculous: a prime example of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted, just so that the government looks like it is doing something constructive. I’m not the only one who is upset. Denise Gadd’s recent article in The Age describes the plight of gardeners, heartbroken over the loss of plants. When I started to research this post, I discovered that there had been newspaper articles dating back to 2001 about impending water shortages and possible restrictions, but I’m not sure much has been done about it up until now. And I’m guessing the Victorian government is feeling a little defensive about it, if I read between the lines of John Thwaites’ article in The Age today.

In saying this, I acknowledge that Australia has to be wiser about water. We are a very dry country. But I’m not at all convinced that a water restriction regime is the way to go about it. I see water restrictions, plastic bag restrictions and the like as representing an increasing tendency towards “Green Puritanism”. That is, we are encouraged to do without certain resources, but no one looks at the logic of whether we really need to go that far, or whether such measures actually help at all. Maybe we need to look at the bigger picture and fix the fundamental problem instead? But most people accept unquestioningly the proposition that water shortages must be their fault, and that they should have to go without. They deserve to be uncomfortable: human beings are sinners against the environment. Governments are quite happy to pass the blame onto the people rather than take concrete action: it looks like they are doing something but they don’t have to get to the root cause of the problem.

I really object to the Stalinesque way in which water restrictions are policed. Neighbours are encouraged to report those who don’t comply with regulations. It creates a climate of pettiness and unpleasantness. My mother is considering putting a sign up saying that the small strip of flowers in her front garden are still blooming because she lugs sink water and shower water out every morning. Fair enough, too, when you read stories about people being unfairly abused by neighbours.

I also wonder about the legality of water inspectors. Is it trespass if someone comes uninvited onto your land without a warrant? Do they need a warrant to enter your property? What checks and balances are there to prevent abuse of these powers? I can’t find the regulations or enactments which have granted them such powers: I suspect it might be in a Government Gazette somewhere.

As an article in The Australian explained the other day, it is highly arguable that water restrictions are based on a false economy. In Victoria, for example, figures of water usage from the ABS showed that in 2004 – 2005, household water usage only made up 8% of the state water consumption, thus, even if household water usage is cut by 10%, this will only result in a 0.8% saving over all: just a drop in the ocean, although I suppose every bit helps. Further, household water consumption per capita and per household was lower in Victoria than any other State or Territory.

A recent report in the Herald Sun noted that more than 750 billion litres of water are lost annually from irrigation channels (through evaporation, seepage, theft and metering errors). In terms of urban water usage, about 44 billion litres are lost annually because of leaking pipes, burst water mains, metering error and other factors. The infrastructure of our waterways is old and has not been updated properly despite a large population growth in the last 20 years.

Thus, it was with interest that I read the Business Council of Australia’s report on water, Water Under Pressure. I particularly liked the statement on page 21 of the report:

Why do Australian consumers accept water restrictions, when they would not tolerate restrictions in similar essential services such as electricity or gas? Australian consumers appear to have been educated to believe a myth: that water is in a state of permanent shortage rather than a resource that is poorly allocated and managed.

The Report makes some very interesting points. Despite being one of the driest countries in the world, we have some of the lowest water prices in the world, half of the amount of many European countries (see Exhibit 6, page 12). We pay four times as much for electricity as we do for water. If consumers were asked to pay more for water, then options such as repairing leaking pipes and aging infrastructure become possible. Putting a higher price on water would also stop wastage of water by hitting people in the hip pocket. There could be concession rates for disadvantaged people (as there are with electricity and the like).

The Report also makes suggestions for allowing competition between water suppliers, and removing barriers to water trading (eg, farmers in an area with lots of water could sell water to urban areas which need it). It calls for centralisation of administration and better organisation of water facilities. In addition, it also recommends exploring use of recycled and desalinated water.

All sounds sensible to me. I am happy to pay double the amount for water if it means that we don’t have to have restrictions and our infrastructure can be repaired. We pay so little at present, and it seems illogical to treat such a precious resource so lightly. Certainly seems more productive than unleashing neighbourhood water witch-hunts!

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Filed under environment, water restrictions

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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