Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Climate Change non-debate

Hot or not?
I don’t really know about this whole carbon-dioxide-causing-global-warming thing. Sure, I like a little of it in my drinks but seriously, is it worth risking a climate apocalypse just so I can get the tingling sensation of bubbles up my nose when I sip on a refreshing beverage? The answer is of course yes, and anyone who says otherwise is a climate alarmist, hypnotised by Greenie propaganda. Go back to smoking pot in happy fairy land and let us get on with running things in the real world. Hippie.
Take that you stupid climate

None of which I actually believe. The weight of evidence supporting the contribution of man-made carbon dioxide to climate change is significant. We are experiencing longer periods of hotter weather, greater unpredictability, worse climatic extremes and retreating ice masses at both poles, and correlations with rises in atmospheric CO2 are obvious. Ignoring the evidence is simply allowing ourselves to be blinded to the greatest threat to face our world since nuclear weapons. Stop sacrificing our children’s future for the sake of a few dollars off your power bill and the right to drive a gas-guzzling monster truck to get your groceries from the soulless mega-mart built by inhuman corporations hell-bent on our demise. Fascist.
Uh, guys?

Aaand breathe.
Somewhere in between these two warring camps you’ll find a) the truth, and b) a rapidly dwindling proportion of humanity. Global warming is polarising people faster than New Facebook, and failing to pick a side looks more like weakness than open-mindedness to those already bolted down at one end or the other of the debate. The only thing they seem to have in common is their conviction that the opposing idea will bring about the end of civilisation as we know it. The difference is in the means  of our destruction; whether it’s baking in the exhaust gases of our own excess, or watching our economy crumble around us as the Greens tour the country, adding a zero to our electricity bills and turning power stations into refuges for sad unicorns.
Save us, Australian Green Party!

So, like, is it really happening?

Global what??

It’s hard to say if Earth is getting warmer. This might seem an odd thing to say, but we’re not talking about a chicken dinner here. You can’t stick a finger in it and see if it burns a bit. The temperature on the surface of the Earth varies between 57.8 degrees (1922, Al’Aziziyah in Libya. A Wednesday I think) and minus 89.2 degrees (Antarctica, 1985), slightly cooler if Snoop Dogg is in the house, uh, yo. Even where these extremes occur, it can vary by up to fifty degrees in any 24 hour period. Over the course of a week, weather can add tens of degrees to this variability. And over a year, seasons can tack on another forty degrees plus or minus.  So on the scale of a day, a week or a year, Earth’s temperature flaps about like granny’s bloomers on baked beans Tuesday. And those in the know will add the eleven year solar cycle to this, usually in whatever way adds to their case.

Yeah, but are we making Earth warmer?

The day after the September 11 attacks, we discovered that we are affecting Earth’s weather (not climate necessarily; there’s a difference). In the 24 hours after the attacks, when air traffic control had bitch-slapped every plane onto the nearest straight bit of tarmac, opportunistic scientists noted something unexpected. Weather readings taken during this window did not show a temperature variation, but they did show a light variation. The absence of contrails (those cool lines that appear behind high-flying jets) reduced the amount of sunlight being reflected back into space, increasing the amount reaching Earth. Whether or not you believe global warming is true, they clearly demonstrated that aircraft cause global dimming. Meteorologists saw the same thing in World War 2: with huge flights of bombers heading over to pummel Germany every day, the same dimming effect was observed several times. Western democracy was busily reducing the Nazi war machine to custard at the time, so the question of the daffodils blooming a bit earlier in thirty years wasn’t likely to distract Winston from getting the Germans back for calling him fat. What it does suggest however is that even though humans are teeny little flyspecks on the surface of the world, we can change the way Nature rolls.
No wait, colder...

Yeah, but ARE we making Earth WARMER?

A lot of people seem to think so. They’re generally fairly smart folks, with degrees in things most of us didn’t even know you could get degrees in.  They’ve done clever things like digging up ancient ice and counting the pollen/ash grains/oxygen isotopes/Rocky sequels in it to see what the climate’s done over generations. They’ve looked at charts of climate data from all over the planet, and found steadily increasing trends that suggest yes, things are slowly getting warmer. Not fast enough that you’d notice (we’re talking a degree a decade sort of thing here, not “so fast your dog will catch fire” sort of speed), but certainly warmer.
Hang on, definitely hotter...

Or so they tell us. A more interesting question might be this: if things aren’t getting warmer, if everything they’ve said is completely wrong/untrue, why the heck are they saying it? It’s possible, as a lot of their opponents say, that they’re making the whole thing up. It could just be a cry for attention by the marginalised and desperate climate scientist lobby (seriously: climate scientists comprise 40% of the homeless population in some countries; it’s so sad seeing them out there on the street, offering to chart your precipitation index for spare change). But if it’s not true, why aren’t climate scientists getting thrown out of universities like creepy truckers at boy scout camps? Why would sensible, intelligent adults get up in the morning, have a scratch and a yawn and think “What a lovely day for some fake science!” It might be fake, it might be bad science, but if it is, it’s bad science on a scale not seen since Y2K had us stocking up on bottled water and packet noodles a while back.


To quote Shakespeare: “Do I LOOK like a climate scientist?”  How the hell should I know if the Earth’s getting warmer?
Ah, crap.

The issue at hand here is that we can’t know. Not conclusively. Most of us are unable to do the research ourselves; even if we could, it’s not likely we could do it on a scale that would yield meaningful answers. If it’s one degree on average warmer in Australia, but two degrees cooler on average in Botswana, is the Earth warmer? If it rains twice as hard for half as long as last year, is the climate changing? There’s simply no such thing as ‘average climate’; we can’t add up all the temperatures, divide by the price of carbon and compare the number to Vogue magazine’s “Hot or Not” index.  To briefly hark back to the earlier example, poking your finger in the chicken dinner will tell you whether it’s hot at the spot where your finger is. Common sense tells you it’ll be just as hot everywhere else, but as everyone who’s bitten into the icy core of an underdone microwave lasagne knows, we can’t even predict the climate of our convenience food without some trial and error. Earth is a six billion billion ton frozen lasagne 12,600 kilometres wide (which would make the cheese layer 250 miles thick if you’re wondering); measuring the temperature of something that size takes more than a cautious prod with an index finger.
The similarity is remarkable

This is an oversimplification of course; we can analyse the steady flow of weather data generated every day and see if there are patterns.There are only a few thousand people qualified to do this though, and some of them might have a vested interest in lying to us, thus:
Coal Industry: “Hello, climate science? I’d like a report saying climate change is bollocks please.”
Climate science: <gasp> “But that might not be true! We could never…”
Coal industry: “Here is money.”
Climate science: “Do you have a preferred font?”
This is not to suggest that there are scientists falsifying evidence. But with something as big and complicated and inaccurate as weather, it’s easy to make the numbers tell any old story. It was twenty degrees here yesterday; today it’s twenty two degrees. Oh no, at that rate it’ll be three hundred degrees by Christmas! Nobody’s going to fall for that of course (if you did, please step away from the computer before you hurt yourself), but it’s much less certain once we’re talking about years and fractions of degrees. Sorting the genuine science from the written-for-a-purpose articles makes it that much harder.

The 1% argument

Even if we accept that global warming is true, is this carbon tax thingy the solution? The idea is pretty simple: charge people money if their power station/factory/pig farm or whatever makes carbon dioxide. This makes their electricity/plastic sandals/pork chops more expensive to make, and thus to buy. The guy across the road with the giant wind farm couldn’t compete with Coal Power Station Guy before the tax, but now, with Coal Guy paying $23 per ton for all the carbon he’s belching out, Wind Farm Guy is making electricity for less money. His business thrives, Coal Guy has to close down. End result: more expensive electricity, but way less carbon dioxide in the air. Sweet! Well, not the more expensive electricity thing, but certainly the less CO2 thing.
Take that you stupid coal

The trouble is, it also makes our other stuff pricier. If we make carbon-neutral plastic sandals and pork chops, they’re going to cost more than the stinky carbony Chinese ones. The rest of the world will buy from China, and our pork chop/plastic sandal industry collapses in a heap. Going it alone will cost us exports, at least in the short term.
And more to the point, given that there are only 20 million of us cranking out CO2 in Australia, how much difference can we really make when one and a bit billion Chinese are still happily belting it out at fifty thousand pork chops/plastic sandals a minute? Australia’s contribution to human CO2 production is only one percent of the total. If nobody else is doing it, imposing a carbon tax is simply making things harder for ourselves for no benefit to the planet. We won’t stop Global Warming, even if we reduce our emissions to zero. And our tasty, tasty climate-friendly pork chops will just rot on the shelves so long as Chinese ones are six cents a kilo cheaper (Russian pork chops are even cheaper, but Chernobyl laser piggies are that little bit harder to get onto the truck).
It’s a rational argument. But that doesn’t make it right. Saying it’s okay because they’re doing it worse is like claiming that eating a few endangered animals is fine because hey, those guys over there are eating them all the time. It doesn’t matter if you only order dugong fritters once, you’re still a jerk for doing it.
Dugong. Tasty, tasty dugong.

And that’s where the moral dimension comes in. Yes, a carbon tax will cost us. No, we won’t save the world on our own. But you can be fairly certain that as long as we’re not reducing our emissions, the big polluters won’t. It’s a bugger of a responsibility, but First World countries kinda have to step up when there’s bad stuff going on. Famine in Africa? US food drops. Tsunami in Indonesia? Australian medical teams. Violent repression in Libya? NATO military assistance. For a variety of reasons, you simply don’t see small African nations taking the lead in relief efforts, you don’t see south east Asian countries unloading bottled water for bedraggled flood survivors, not on the scale that Western Democracies can do it. Taking the lead on moral issues sometimes sucks, it makes our pork chops more expensive, but it seems like a fair trade-off for clean water, decent Internet and not getting murdered in our sleep by a brutal repressive regime. A carbon tax will take a few dollars out of our pockets, it will slow our economy down a couple of notches, but it’s one of those annoying Right Thing To Do slash Lead By Example sort of things that nobody will ever thank us for.
Of course, that’s assuming the science is right…
This whole thing may just dry up and blow away in a decade or three. The numbers might reverse, a volcanic eruption might give us another Year Without A Summer, we might even drop back into that Ice Age they predicted back in the 70s. That creepy Monckton guy will spend his last days on an ‘I Told You So’ tour, everyone will rewrite history to show they were against the whole thing from the start and we’ll be able to get back to cooking our dugong fritters over coal fired electric stoves like we did back in the nineties. We might even be able to shut down all the nuclear power stations because…uh…oh yeah, they ruin the spinach. It would be very, very cool if the whole thing turned out to be one gigantic mistake.
Thaaat's better
But consider this:
The oil is going to run out. Probably in the next fifty years.
Natural gas is going to run out. Some time this century.
The coal will run out. We’ve got a good couple of centuries worth, but there will come a day when we’re scraping the last bits from between the railway tracks to keep our microwaves turning for one more day.
Global warming or not, we WILL run out of fossil fuels. A carbon tax won’t stop that, but it will definitely make people develop more renewable energy sources. The biofuel plans have all fallen in an untidy heap since we realised the corn you’d need to fuel an average SUV once is enough to feed a person for a year. Global warming or not, having a few windmills, solar plants and tidal thingies up and running when the oil tankers start coming back half-full will be a very good thing. With every second government in the middle east cheerfully murdering its own citizens, the price of oil is only going to go up.
No thanks, we've got wind.

There are a couple of horrible issues that will prevent us sorting this mess out soon though. The first one is just how many people will be affected by a carbon tax. It’ll make business more expensive: it’s hard to make much of anything without using a little electricity, so the big end of town hate this tax for cutting into their profits. At the other end of the bar, blue-collar types will take a hit when their jobs are threatened by these increased costs. People who work in carbon-intensive industries don’t care about the ocean being three inches deeper twenty years after they’re dead. They care about losing their job shovelling coal before they pay off the thirty-year mortgage they had to take out to ensure their sons went to Bali every footy season and their teenage daughters got a bathroom each. Traditional class enemies are thus allied in their opposition, leaving the middle class looking nervously in both directions. It’s why we’re seeing union rabble-rousers sharing a podium with heavy breathers from the mining industry and the usual passel of right-wing cash-for-comment shock jocks who know a ratings-grabbing populist issue when they see one.
Carbon tax: hard on workers, harder on donkeys.

Second, this one’s really got people’s blood boiling. Our prime minister got in because she went on tape saying Nooo We’re Not Doing A Carbon Tax! Promise! Embarrassingly, a tied election meant she had to cosy up to that bloke from the Greens to get across the line. He would only hop in the sack with her if she agreed to a carbon tax; faced with the choice of three years in opposition or having to grit her teeth and smile when people replayed the “No carbon tax” tape, she chose the one with the gritting and smiling. It’s made the issue an easy vote-buyer for her opponents, who don’t have to actually come up with an answer; they get votes just by playing the tape. Unclear science, plenty of strident and credible deniers and a good healthy dash of bugger-the-planet-I-want-cheaper-electricity meant any serious debate would quickly descend into name-calling and bitterness.
The urbane sophisticated face of Australian political discourse

More than thirty years after we first heard the words, this is where the climate change question is at. Sensible debate is shouted down, either by the Deniers or the True Believers. Scientific evidence in either direction is immediately drowned in a deluge of partisan opinions that send the scientists, the only people who CAN tell us if it’s real, scurrying out of the spotlight. Any chance we had of getting to the truth is long gone. This thing will be decided by the loudest voices and the deepest pockets.
And that to me is the real tragedy. Science has doubled our life span, showed us a glimpse of our amazing universe, eliminated some horrific diseases, given us wonderful toys and a level of control over our destiny unimaginable a hundred years ago. But faced with the possibility of a global catastrophe in a hundred years, people willingly dismiss the science if it means they can save enough on the power bill to afford an iPhone 5 next month. If we had treated our early medical science the way we’re currently treating climate science, a trip to the doctor today would get you a course of leeches, a dunking in vinegar and a good strong strychnine enema. It’s just normal human behaviour of course: faced with an intangible, uncertain threat beyond our life spans, our brains easily rationalise away the dangers in favour of an immediate shiny reward with unlimited Facebook and a free leather-look cover.
Sure, I know I'm destroying the planet. But...look at that screen! LOOK AT IT!

I couldn’t understand why people were so dismissive about the science, but it came to me when someone asked me recently for my opinion. Not strange in itself, but the way she asked the question surprised me. She didn’t ask whether I believed the evidence was being correctly interpreted, whether I thought we had insufficient data, or whether I thought the debate was too mired in partisan politics for the science to matter any more. What she said was this:
“Do you believe in Global Warming?”
It was like she’d asked me whether I believed in fairies, Father Christmas, or God. All important questions worthy of consideration, but they are philosophical matters, and whether you believe in them is more important than whether they exist.
But science isn’t something you believe in. What would you think if someone said “Do you believe in gravity”? Or whether you ‘believed in’ the laws of thermodynamics? You accept the validity of scientific evidence, you do not ‘believe in it’. If climate scientists are telling us it’s getting hotter, it won’t matter what you (or they) believe in, it won’t matter how many times Monckton ridicules them, it will only matter if they get the science right.
When you believe in something, you stop listening to anything that disagrees with your opinion. ‘Believing in’ something implies faith rather than a rational decision based on evidence; it’s ideal for religions and the characters of children’s fantasies, but until a religion comes up with an AIDS vaccine, until Father Christmas sends a rocket to Mars or the Tooth Fairy resolves the string theory debate, I’m going to look to scientists for solutions to the world’s problems.
Satisfied, smart guy?

But for most of us, it’s too late. It’s gone beyond the issue, and is now more about proving those other idiots wrong than about finding the truth. We’d prefer a five percent chance of human extinction to a fifty percent chance of picking the wrong side, so nobody is going to change their mind now. People now back their chosen climate change position the way they back their football team, and nothing the meteorologists say will change their minds.
They might be wrong about the whole thing. Science is NOT infallible. It is proved wrong all the time (maybe even Einstein, although it's more likely those naughty chimps at CERN who are wrong). If the world’s climate scientists are proved wrong about climate change, they’ll scratch their heads, peer quizzically at their barometers and start going through their notes to figure out where they made the mistake.
But if they’re right, we’d better start building windmills. Soon.