SUV owners should spend a night in jail, say activists

September 2, 2009

That people who own SUVs – dubbed 4x4s in the U.K., should be incarcerated is but one of a handful of distinctly odd, and almost certainly unproductive, ideas to get people in Britain to reduce their carbon emissions by 10 percent by 2010.  Another is to wear a 10:10 necklace as reminder of one’s moral commitment to save the planet.

To Brendan O’Neill, writing in the Guardian newspaper, the necklaces reminded him “more than anything else of those youthful members of the religious right in the US who take pledges to be decent people, only where they “just say no” to sex and alcohol, the 10:10 supporters ‘just say no’ to junk food and flights.”

But the real problem is not blinged out environmentalism – it’s environmentalism that blinds itself to genuine solutions to global warming by reducing it to sacerdotal and ultimately trivial rituals. As O’Neill notes:

“There is a glaring disconnect between the scaremongering employed by environmentalists and their proposed solutions. In one breath they tell us we face the worst crisis in human history, one which will make “genocide and ethnic cleansing look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering”, and in the next they tell us we can avoid this disaster by wearing thermal underwear instead of turning on the heat and going to Leon instead of McDonald’s.

No wonder “ordinary people” aren’t enthusiastically signing up to the environmentalist ethos. They know it simply doesn’t make sense to say that we face an enviro-holocaust and then to claim we can prevent it by not taking a cheap flight to Majorca.”

More to the point, the hoopla generated by the 10:10 campaign, as it is called, distracts from scientific solutions. As O’Neill notes, while activists were donning necklaces at the Tate Modern gallery to mark the launch of 10:10, Britain’s Royal Society was urging investment in geo-engineering – something vociferously opposed by British environmentalists.

John Wayne Gacy – the “green” serial killer

August 7, 2009

The New York Times eco-blog headline “Having Children Brings High Carbon Impact” seems almost tailor made to create a flame out between those who believe reproduction is divinely mandated and those advocating radical population control. As the study notes in language that might be judged less scientific than sermonizing,

“Under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions. A person’s reproductive choices must be considered along with his day-to-day activities when assessing his ultimate impact on the global environment.”

Literary theorists will surely marvel at the switch from gendered language to gender “neutral” language, and the attendant ambiguity: is it the man’s job to refrain from increasing his carbon legacy or the woman’s? Either way, the press release from Oregon State University tried to play down the sense of moral reproach to those who who  fail to count their children in terms of carbon emissions.

“The researchers make it clear they are not advocating government controls or intervention on population issues, but say they simply want to make people aware of the environmental consequences of their reproductive choices.”

But turning to the comments section under the Times blog, one finds the logic of balancing reproductive choices against the environment pushed to its grisliest conclusion. As the poster A3k noted an hour after the article went up:

“Of the serial killers I’m aware, John Wayne Gacy was the greenest. His victims were young, so he snuffed out many years of carbon consumption. He could have only been greener by targeting females.”

Let’s hope that thinking about the carbon cost of children stops with virtual craziness.

When confirmation bias affects global warming analysis

November 17, 2008

The report about an enormous goof in collating global temperature data  in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper – “The world has never seen such freezing heat” – has generated it’s own storm system of hot and cold air, with global warming skeptics declaring it “Another dagger in the heart of global warming” and environmentalists responding that one screw up does not a trend undermine.

NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) had declared that October was the warmest on record, despite evidence that some parts of the world were experiencing record or near-record shifts in the opposite direction.  In the U.S., as the Telegraph reported, “the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registered 63 local snowfall records and 115 lowest-ever temperatures for the month, and ranked it as only the 70th-warmest October in 114 years.”

So what accounted for this startling discrepancy? Here’s how the Telegraph’s Christopher Booker put it:

GISS’s computerised temperature maps seemed to show readings across a large part of Russia had been up to 10 degrees higher than normal. But when expert readers of the two leading warming-sceptic blogs, Watts Up With That and Climate Audit, began detailed analysis of the GISS data they made an astonishing discovery. The reason for the freak figures was that scores of temperature records from Russia and elsewhere were not based on October readings at all. Figures from the previous month had simply been carried over and repeated two months running.

The error was so glaring that when it was reported on the two blogs – run by the US meteorologist Anthony Watts and Steve McIntyre, the Canadian computer analyst who won fame for his expert debunking of the notorious “hockey stick” graph – GISS began hastily revising its figures. This only made the confusion worse because, to compensate for the lowered temperatures in Russia, GISS claimed to have discovered a new “hotspot” in the Arctic – in a month when satellite images were showing Arctic sea-ice recovering so fast from its summer melt that three weeks ago it was 30 per cent more extensive than at the same time last year.

A GISS spokesman lamely explained that the reason for the error in the Russian figures was that they were obtained from another body, and that GISS did not have resources to exercise proper quality control over the data it was supplied with. This is an astonishing admission: the figures published by Dr Hansen’s institute are not only one of the four data sets that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies on to promote its case for global warming, but they are the most widely quoted, since they consistently show higher temperatures than the others.

A colder than usual fall does not mean that global warming is not happening, nor does one or more errant sets of data suggest that it’s all a bunch of hooey; but the admission that there isn’t “proper quality control” over how this data is collected should be seen as alarming – as should the failure to spot the anomalous findings until critics began speaking up.

What it suggests is a bad case of confirmation bias: Goddard’s researchers are so focused on confirming that global warming is getting worse that they were overly disposed to accepting data which confirmed their worst fears and under disposed to double check its veracity. This is how science gets skewed.

This may well be a singular mistake, and one should perhaps not suddenly embrace global warming skepticism; but the skeptics have demonstrated that the data cannot be taken for granted, and that, at the very least, the Goddard Institute would benefit from less consensus among its staff.

The Carbon Cost of Bathing

June 25, 2008

Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Forget about switching off electrical appliances and try showering less and wearing more clothes around the house at the expense of cranking up the heat. These are among some of the obvious conclusions drawn by physicists, such as Professor David J C MacKay of Cambridge University in the U.K. For instance, forgoing one bath will save the same amount of energy as leaving your TV off standby for over six months.

Of course, the rejoinder is that every little bit adds up, but the question is just what needs to be added to what in order to kick the carbon addiction? This is where Professor MacKay’s Ph.D in computational physics comes in handy. Take the United Kingdom, which Greenpeace believes could meet its energy needs without resorting to nuclear or coal-driven power stations. But work the math and the country, as Lewis Page puts it,

would be literally covered with — and girdled by — massive wind farms, tidal barriers and wave barrages, and every sizeable body of water in the land would rise and fall to the strange new tides of the national grid. We would have literally rebuilt the British Isles as a single mighty renewable generator, pouring concrete and erecting steel on a scale so far matched only by human habitation — industrialising the land and sea in a way that would make intensive agribusiness look like a wildlife refuge. And still we’d be importing power.

Biofuel is not much of a solution either. As MacKay notes, to provide one-quarter of Britain’s current energy consumption, 75 percent of the nation’s land mass would need to be planted with biomass crops.

And in case you’re wondering, Professor MacKay is not a paid up member of the fossil-fuel industry, he’s just your average liberal academic who’s worried about global warming, believes we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our overall energy consumption but – thanks to a Ph.D in computational physics from Cal Tech – also believes that to deal with these problems, “we need numbers not adjectives.”

To read more numbers, check out the online version of Professor MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. (Hat tip to The Register, via Arts and Letters Daily.)


June 13, 2008

ABC News reports on the “chilling” future awaiting a world where nothing is done to combat global warming.


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