Monday, May 22, 2006

This Glass is Half Full, v1.2

I note with some glee that Marco has abandoned to me the position ‘we should do nothing about anthropogenic global warning’. His discussion over in anotherblog appears to be quibbling about the best way to do something about anthropogenic global warning. [I accidentally deleted this when trying to fix a typographical error, along with Marco's comment that he still does really think we should do nothing about global warming, he just believes there can be collateral benefits to carbon trading. So consider me gleeful instead that I have not lost my only fellow traveller!]
I admit that I have wavered somewhat over the past year, but now feel that I can assert this position with confidence. Anthropogenic global warming is a fact, but we should do nothing about it.

Item 1: Climate doesn’t kill people, Weather kills people. If the climate is likely to change to give a 25% increase in the amount of economic and human damage from weather, should we make heroic efforts to avoid this change, enormous in absolute terms? Or should we direct our efforts to protecting people and property from weather in general? Any change in climate leading to more severe storms/droughts in a particular area will be a trend laid over a pattern of variations in weather already containing many episodes of these events. If an area experiences too many droughts to be used for agriculture without subsidies from outside, it should be abandoned. If the economic productivity of a storm-affected area in good years is not enough to offest the cost of reconstructing it after bad years, it should be abandoned. Admittedly there is the possibility that Atlantic hurricanes could become regular events in the north-east and south-west Atlantic, for example, but I assert that the primary economic damage of a strong global warming event will be restricted to areas that are marginal for human use and should never have been used in the way we are using them. Nobody in their right mind ought to live in a dead-flat swamp where six-metre storm surges can occur, like the Ganges Delta or the Gulf Coast of the United States. These areas are likely to suffer recurring natural disasters and struggle to remain viable with or without global warming. Rather than do anything to slow global warming, we should abandon these areas.
Cost neutral suggestions: I recommend vegetarianism, as a way to remove the economic incentive to occupy marginal grazing lands susceptible to drought, and thalassophobia- the vast evil blue thing wants to kill us- to remove people from these dangerous places.

Item 2: Everything adapts. So a hundred years may well see a significant change in climate. In a hundred years, a farming district may cycle through three or four cash crops. In a hundred years, people can abandon one region en masse and settle another one. In a hundred years, animals and plants can also move from one place to another. Shifts in habitat are already occurring and being noted as responses to global warming. Usually these are reported with concerned tut-tutting: they need not be. Life is flexible.
Global warming cannot be uniformly bad for all environments and all species. It will be bad for some species and good for others. A naive Clammish view would say that it would favour warmer environments- which tend to support a larger number of species than cold ones. Invariably, we are likely to hear sad tales about species that are losers and find species that are winners demonised as pests. This will be irrational. Species come and species go, just like individuals. The primary difference is that unlike species, individuals can suffer or be happy: individuals are of more importance. However, I do like having lots of species around. However, preventing global warming is a very round-about and inefficient way of protecting endangered species. The evacuation of areas that are marginal for human habitation (Item 1) will present a fine opportunity to establish large reserves.
Cost neutral suggestions: I recommend open borders, to allow people to adapt optimally to new condtions, and an end to subsidies to poor uses of agricultural land, ditto.

Item 3: Lomborg is probably wrong about the main impact of global warming being on the Third World. It now appears likely that the world will not heat up uniformly, but heating will be much more marked near the poles than near the equator. A modest increase in tropical temperatures over a hundred years is unlikely to produce any impact on the Third World that could be disentangled from the pre-existing background of weather, disease, and poor governance. These are the problems that we should be tackling. Warming of the temperate/subarctic northern hemisphere, on the other hand, will have significant beneficial economic effects: reduced winter mortality, reduced energy use for heating, extended growing seasons, more available arable land, new sea routes, etc.

Item 4: We should worry about the catastrophes.
Lomborg mentions in his reply to Scientific American that he did not attempt to cost certain catastrophic events, since the models suggested they had a very small likelihood of occurring. These catastrophic events play a large role in global warming consciousness-raising, however.
(a) We have no idea what degree of global warming might be necessary to kick off these events.
(b) We have no way of ensuring that, even if we emit no carbon dioxide, these events will not occur sometime in the future due to natural warming.
Therefore, instead of going to heroic efforts to aim at some target (a) which may be made redundant by (b), we should think seriously about how we can adapt to, mitigate, or reverse these possible catastrophic events.
Self-serving suggestion: We should give lots of money to scientists and engineers.

Item 5: On reflection, Item 5 is sillier than the rest, and has been omitted.

Addenda: This dodgy analysis has left out a few things we are likely to lose to global warming, but I think it will be much cheaper to save them in an ad hoc fashion. These are edifices of significant cultural value in places marginal to human habitation, and species inhabiting environments likely to vanish entirely. Polar bears presumably survived the last warm interglacial period in some refugia. We ought to locate one and ensure that a population of them remains there.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


$2.50 a kilo! At the little shop in the village! Someone brought them up from the coast.

Here is Scientific American's really lame attack on Lomborg, entirely embedded in the best poliblog fashion within Lomborg's reply.

The Comedy of the Commons

The other day on the radio I heard someone from one of the local councils complaining that people weren’t using enough water. Under pressure from the state government they had switched from a flat fee structure to a pay for use system . Now pensioners were refusing to water their lawns, he said, and the town was starting to look drab and brown. ‘It’s silly,’ he said ‘The river flows right through town. We’ve got plenty of water. It’s one of the things that attract people to our area. And its not like the extra water costs us anything: all of our expenses are involved with the infrastructure for delivery, which costs us the same no matter how much people use.’

There certainly is a fine river flowing through that particular local council area, but I understand it is a saline trickle by the time it reaches the ocean… I should like to see this local council required to bid for water licenses in competition with all of the cotton growers, rice growers, fruit and vegetable growers, and other towns and cities further downstream. Allocate enough for everyone to have one free toilet flush per day from the river, O Greenly-inclined State Government, and auction off the rest!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bjorn Again

I haven’t yet read more than a tiny fraction of the Anti-Lomborg webpages I’ve come across, and can’t contemplate the process of wading in against them. I find it astonishing that he can have aroused such vitriol. It is also hard to believe that many of the critics have even read the book, the straw man they attack has so little resemblance to the book I have been reading. The Skeptical Inquirer’s review is a particularly feeble hatchet job that cherry-picks a few examples of logical fallacies- which could be found in practically every popular science book ever written- and never mentions the central thesis of the book. Other critics accuse Bjorn of naively assuming that the market and business as usual will take care of everything, while he actually argues strongly for government action in the form of debt for rainforest swaps, research into renewable energy, multinational mangement of oceanic resources, etc.

I think Bjorn is trying to say something very simple that ought to be utterly uncontroversial:
Since we do not have infinite resources, we need to set priorities. If we do not do this explicitly, we will end up with a set of priorities based on media sound-bites that will be grossly inefficient. We need to set our prioirities rationally, in the light of a proper study of the possible costs of our problems and the possible costs of fixing our problems.

It is legitimate to argue about the best way of doing these cost benefit-analyses, and it is both legitimate and easy to poke holes in Bjorn’s specific analyses. He is just one person, analysing data that is in the public domain, and I am sure he would agree that every calculation he makes is provisional and subject to large errors. The point of the book seems to me that simply that such analyses should be made and should form the basis for environmental policy.

I think critics are also wrong to snarl at Bjorn’s relentless optimisim. I remember years ago, pre-Lomborg, reading a book by David Suzuki called ‘The Japan We Never Knew’. In it he recounts with apparent approval a scene in a Japanese classroom where an environmentally aware teacher is asking students if they think various facets of the environment will be better or worse when they grow up, and they all agree that things will be worse. I wanted to shake David Suzuki. Hang on, those are all things that I know have gotten better in the past few decades! If this teacher is any good, she should be convincing students that they can make a difference. She should be telling them about the successes of the environmental movement and the way people have managed to change things for the better, not inoculating her students with despair for the future. If you are Dictator of Eastasia and your environmental advisors keep telling you your environmental problems will cost more resources to solve than you have, wouldn’t you just say ‘the hell with it’, spend your resources however you feel like it, and hope your environmental advisors have got it wrong? I know I would. Before we can solve our problems, we need to believe our problems are soluble.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Paul Ehrlich

Reading the Skeptical Environmentalist has1 reminded me of the most serious concern I had with the books of Jared Diamond, namely that the author seemed to be good friends with Paul Ehrlich.2 The nicest3 you can say about Paul Ehrlich is that he is a racist sociopath. I will let you discover his ghastly Neoimperialist fantasies for yourself: suffice it to say that he embraces my dystopic vision ‘Al Gore takes over the world and sterilises everyone’ with gusto. This is the famous passage from his famous book4 quoted by young Bjorn:5

Psychologically, the population explosion first sunk in on a stinking hot night in Delhi. The streets were alive with people. People eating, people washing themselves, people sleeping, people working, arguing and screaming. People reaching their hands in through taxi windows to beg. People shitting, people pissing. People hanging off buses. People driving animals through the streets. People, people, people.

I am not a big fan of Delhi either. It is a very overwhelming and frequently unpleasant place to be foreign in. But, those people in Delhi are doing much the same things, at much the same density, as people in an American shopping mall.6 There are only a few differences: As part of the general bustle the people in Delhi are recycling and repairing a vast number of things that the Americans are throwing away. The people in Delhi are using, per capita, ever so much less of any resource you care to name than the Americans are. The city of Delhi occupies a much smaller land area and has a much smaller enivronmental footprint than an American city of the same size. And… there was one other thing, but I can’t remember what it is.7

1. In addition to rekindling my ancient love affair with footnotes.

2. This is okay, in that it is morally okay to be good friends with all sorts of people with lunatic ideas. It would be okay to be good friends with David Irving, say. But, when you bring this up in conversation, you ought to hastily add that you repudiate his ideas, if you don’t want to be tarred by the same brush. Jared Diamond never makes it clear that Paul Ehrlich’s published ideas are the ideas of a racist sociopath, and that’s what made me concerned.

3. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary, New York, 1977. nice, adj. 4. Precise, accurate.

4. My Struggle, oops I mean The Population Bomb, 1968.

5. Page 48 of the Skeptical Environmentalist.

6. I only say American because Paul Ehrlich is one of the Chosen People: shopping malls in Devil Bunny City are obviously just as bad.

7. Remembered now! I think the disgraced gubernatorial candidate in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ put it best: ‘Them boys are not white.’

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Lesson of September 12th

I realise why I have been so quiet lately. I am clearly going through a meek and non-confrontational phase. The prospect of unpacking my thoughts on climate change makes me feel all twitchy.

So I should start in a roundabout way by saying that I have finished Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. Like ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, you all ought to read it, so I won’t say too much about it here until the rest of you catch up. It is a lot like Dr. Seuss’s ‘The Lorax’ but with real examples. The Lorax always made me really sad, but I have grown used to reading really sad things so that the sadness has siuffused my being, so I can’t say I became any more depressed through reading it. The irreversibility of deforestation in some environments struck me- on Iceland, Easter Island, and Northern Arizona. Some environments are robust enough that the forests come back in a few generations and seethe over the ruins of lost civilisations, and some just aren’t. I went out immediately and went for a walk around my own piece of land, once open forest, cleared ninety years ago and not grazed or (except for a few feeble attempts at firebreaks) mown for the past 18 months since we’ve had it. There are several large established native trees, but there were absolutely no new ones coming up anywhere. Maybe all of our native trees are the sort that need fire to germinate? We have cool, wet summers and long winters, so I would expect the unmodified landscape to have been more of a mosaic of pro-fire and anti-fire trees, like in northwestern Tasmania. If they are all ‘pro-fire’ trees, I assume it is a product of aboriginal land management practices and the ‘anti-fire’ trees are lurking in the gorges thirty km to the east. I might be wrong since my botanical ignorance is near total. It could just be that it will take a long time for the soil to recover from all those decades of being walked on by sheepses. Along one side there is a line of old pine trees planted as a windbreak, and under these a few new little pine trees were coming up, but nowhere near as many were springing up under the same kind of trees on along the road. Where we have transplanted these to outline the windbreak of the future along another side fence, they are doing very nicely. It sunk in that the lovely view outside is one of those irreversibly-changed environments: if humans left tomorrow, whatever final forest cover does manage to colonise it would be dominated by introduced trees and would have a depleted flora and fauna compared to neighbouring areas of uncleared bush for thousands of year.

Jared Diamond never says much about the subtitle of his book: ‘How societies choose to fail or survive’. Or, I guess he does, but he never addresses the more interesting quiestion, ‘Why societies choose to fail or survive.’ He says that the response of societies to changes is sometimes good and sometimes bad, and in the case of the Pacific islands fits this to a deterministic model: things tended to reach a stable and not completely disasterous equilibrium on tiny islands where everyone’s actions obviously affected everyone else, and on large flattish ones where a single government could be established. But on ones geographically condemned to be divided between numerous groups, Tribe A had no incentive to conserve resources if it meant that they would be snaffled by the evil Tribe B: it was better to get in and snaffle them first. You will read this yourselves, of course.
I think the why to failure is simply putting personal, short-term interests ahead of long-term interests. Often, what is globally good will be locally bad, and vice versa.
Two examples from a society that is supposedly concerned about achieving a sustainable use of energy:
The Victorian (non) wind farm. Canned because of the orange-bellied parrot. Is it a good thing for the parrot? Probably. Is it remotely credible that a network of wind and solar energy remotely capable of meeting our energy needs could be established without impacting negatively on a lot of endangered species? I don’t think so.
The evils of smoke. The council in the big city (population 16,000) is banning wood heaters because it is in a valley and fills with smoke every winter. This will be nice for the local asthmatics, but it also means that houses currently heated with non-fossil carbon will be shifted to fossil carbon.
Here’s another example, which I don’t get at all, about another scare resource. Devil Bunny City was under the despotic rule of a supposedly ‘green’ premier. It lets all its stormwater and almost all of its wastewater run off into the ocean. Instead of attempting to convince us of the merits of recycling, he decided to build a desalination plant which makes no environmental or economic sense. On second thought, I have no idea what this is an example of, since it seems both locally and globally insane.

The evils of smoke brings me to the important lesson of September 12th. What happens if you ground all the planes for a few days and reduce the amount of particulates in the upper atmosphere? The temperature shoots up a couple of degrees. What would happen if we instantly stopped using fossil fuels (say, if it is discovered an over-zealous Pentagon once added a few zeroes to a proposal and there are enough submarine-sized nuclear reactors in a cavern in Texas for every small town in the world to have one)? If we cut our emissions to zero, the temperature will spike up everywhere by some unspecified amount. And it is the speed of climate change that is a bad thing: life can cope with very big changes if they aren’t too quick. Carbon sequestration technologies are absolutely essential if we want to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because natural processes are too slow. When these are cost-effective to implement they will be impemented. I don’t know what the ideological conservationist position is on carbon sequestration and I suspect it will make me twitchy to find out. My worry is that the orthodox wisdom conflates a whole bunch of questions into one:

Is global warming occurring?
Is it caused primarily by humans?
Should we try to stop it, or just mitigate its effects?
If we should try to stop it, what are the best ways?
How do we get societies to adopt these best ways?

It seems to me that the ideological conservationist leaps directly from the beginning of this to the end without thinking too much about the middle. I am not so sure as I was a year ago that we should do nothing to try and stop global warming: I think we should probably spend a reasonable amount of money on investigating biological and technological methods of carbon sequestration. I think Kyoto-type agrreements are a very bad idea. The transition to a post-fossil fuel economy will happen anyway, driven by economics. We won’t even have to stop driving our cars, because once our power generation is nuclear we will have immense reservs of natural gas to reform into clean-burning motor fuel at no more than two or three times its current cost in real terms. (By ‘we’ I mean Russia and the Greater Iranian Islamic Republic).

I haven’t read the Sceptical Environmentalist, but I think the Copenhagen Consensus project is a good idea. We need to prioritise things. It is silly to go around saying everything is equally important and we need to everything now, because we either end up paralysed and do nothing, or make a choice on where to devote our energies on sentimental reasons and become tireless advocates for baby Harp Seals.