Monday, September 26, 2011

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand / Haydn Washington and John Cook -- London: Earthscan, 2011

In recent years, a number of books have been published exposing the corporate-sponsored cottage industry that is challenging the conclusions of climate science. See, for example, James Hoggan's Climate Cover Up and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt. Haydn Washington and John Cook's Climate Change Denial is clearly within this genre. Indeed, much of its research relies on the work of these other books. It does, however, take an important step beyond the critiques of the denial industry by inquiring into the psychology of denial and by noting the extent to which our entire culture is in denial about the consequences of climate change.

The first chapter distinguishes denial from skepticism and attributes the former to those who reject the fact or significance of climate change. It attributes the latter to the scientific community which increasingly is warning us about the dangers of climate change. The second chapter provides the mandatory outline of the conclusions of climate science. Chapters three and four recount various forms of denial and the history of the denial industry. The work is fine, but the two books mentioned above provide greater detail. A great deal of space is devoted to criticizing Ian Plimer's 2009 book Heaven and Earth. Washington and Cook begin by noting that it is tempting to dismiss Plimer's book out of hand, and after a cursory examination of it, this option does not seem unreasonable; however, Washington and Cook believe the work has become too important within the denial industry to ignore. Their critique is trenchant, without becoming mired in detail.

Chapters five through seven are, however, the most important of the book, though not necessarily the most well-written. In these chapters, Washington and Cook take up the social, political, and psychological questions as to why the denial industry's public relations efforts have been so successful in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary. The answers, roughly put, are that we have allowed the denial industry to get away with too many distortions and falsehoods and that we ourselves have fallen prey to a form of denial they call "implicatory denial."

The necessary response is to recognize that we are all -- to some extent -- in denial about the consequences of climate change. Washington and Cook exhort us to "Accept reality!" and begin acting to transform our lifestyles in ways that will reduce our carbon footprint. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that our politicians will do nothing about the pending catastrophe until we force them to act. We must not be content with nice sounding policy statements and instead demand concrete actions that will reduce the world's carbon emissions. In particular, we must find a way to put a price on carbon so that there is an incentive to conserve and so that alternative energies can become more competitive.

In chapter seven, Washington and Cook discuss six alternative energy sources that don't emit significant amounts of carbon. They make valuable references to other books that discuss these alternatives in greater detail. They go on to discuss two more very controversial non-carbon alternatives: nuclear power and the technology to capture and sequester the carbon that results from coal fired power plants. Washington and Cook are critical of both, claiming that they will not quickly and significantly reduce carbon emissions. They also note the dangers that these technologies pose. In the same vein, they warn against geoengineering.

If we take Washington and Cook's advice and accept that the pending climate catastrophe requires action, we still need to be careful about assessing the extent of the danger and the consequences of our actions to address the problems of climate change. It is here that the environmentalist community must come to terms with the role of nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and geoengineering projects. A number of writers concerned about climate change, particularly, James Hansen and George Monbiot, look favorably on some of these options which probably reflects their concerns about reaching a "tipping point" with regard to climate change. As such a future is not at all impossible, it seems prudent not to summarily reject options for reducing carbon emissions; however, Washington and Cook correctly recognize that the dangers these options pose are extreme. If it is prudent not to rule out extremely dangerous measures, then it is even more prudent to re-double our efforts to bring about not just a low carbon society, but a low energy society. Much can be gained by returning to lifestyles where the quality of life is not dependent upon the profligate energy consumption of the last one hundred years.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Climate Change and Society / John Urry -- Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2011

The discussion of climate change has largely been carried on among Earth scientists, economists, and political activists. John Urry, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, believes that as long as our discourse is limited to these domains, we will not be able to adequately address the threats of climate change. Instead, we must make sociology central to the discussion and we must understand the social forces and institutions behind our "high carbon lives." Climate Change and Society is his attempt to do just this.

Early on, Urry describes three major "discourses" contesting how people commonly think about climate change: skepticism, gradualism, and catastrophism. There are three main strands within the skeptical discourse: one denies that the planet is warming, one denies that human beings are significantly responsible for the warming, and one asserts that the effects of climate change will be either beneficial, benign, or mild enough that we can adapt to the changes. Over the past twenty years, the first two strands have become less prominent. As the evidence for anthropogenic climate change has mounted, it has become harder and harder to persuade anyone that we are not changing our climate.

The third strand of skepticism, however, still manages to maintain some support. Bjorn Lomborg is among its most prominent proponents. Lomborg has argued that resources invested now in economic growth will accumulate value faster than the harms of climate change will develop. Consequently, future generations will be better protected from climate change if we do nothing about it now and instead concentrate on economic growth. Urry does not bother to refute this claim. The recent uncertainty about the future of economic growth, the peaking of world oil production, and the mounting evidence that climate change will cause significant problems makes doing nothing seem irresponsible.

The gradualist view of climate change argues that a dire future lies ahead if we continue with business as usual, but it will come about in a smooth, incremental transformation. This is the view expressed in reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Two facts about these reports make Urry believe they may be too conservative. First, the reports are the product of numerous scientists, many of whom are reluctant to accept anything but the most clearly established claims. Furthermore, the reports must be approved by political delegations from numerous countries around the world, including nations that are reluctant to accept the facts and dangers of climate change, e.g., OPEC countries, China, and the United States among others. These structural forces within the IPCC mean that the reports will understate the facts and dangers.

Second, feedback loops are not considered in the conclusions coming out of the IPCC. Since the feedback loops that exacerbate climate change are more numerous and significant than the feedback loops that mitigate climate change, reports that don't include feedback loops will likely show less warming and fewer bad consequences.

As opposed to the gradualist view, the catastrophic view holds that changes to the climate can occur suddenly and drastically when a "tipping point" is reached, causing the climate to shift to a new stable condition. As life has become adapted to current condition over eon's of evolution, a sudden dramatic shift in climate conditions will threaten the fabric of the ecosystem. The result will be significant and irreversible changes that will wipe out species and make civilization as we know it difficult, if not impossible. A number of prominent scientists accept this view. James Hansen, in particular, warns that a "Venus syndrome" might be our future, where greenhouse gases create an entirely uninhabitable planet.

Urry takes both the gradualist and catastrophic views seriously and argues that to escape our fate we first must understand that we live "high carbon lives" and understand how our social institutions lock us into these lives. Second, we must seek ways to transform our social institutions to relieve us from our dependency on fossil fuels. This is Urry's most important observation. Many authors write about how we must abandon "business as usual" if we are to avoid disaster, but while this is certainly a metaphor for many things other than business, it unintentionally implicates our economic institutions. Much more needs to be changed than business and commerce. We must abandon not "business as usual," but "life as usual." This is a far taller order. Without doing so, no legal regulation likely will be sufficient to make the profound changes that are needed. In a chapter on politics, Urry warns that without quickly changing our social institutions, only an authoritarian state may be capable of mitigating disaster. Urry calls on us to find numerous ways to lead "low carbon lives," which could create opportunities to transform fundamentally our suicidal institutions.

Urry's book ends by projecting four different possible futures. The first is the "Star Trek" future in which technological developments make it possible find low carbon energy sources in time to avoid disaster and continue and expand our current lifestyles. The second is the "warlords" future in which global and national community breaks down and regions are dominated by petty warlords competing for the remnants of a collapsing society. The third is the "local sustainability" future in which a transition takes place from a neo-liberal global society to self-sufficient local economies that establish sustainable social institutions. The fourth is the "Futurama III" future in which social needs are met virtually. Urry makes no unambiguous prediction about which of these futures will come about, but argues that the more preferable future is the local sustainability future and that we ought to examine how we can transform our current institutions to support a transition to it.

The primary value of Climate Change and Society is that it underscores how, over the course of the twentieth century, we have "locked in" a high carbon lifestyle. Everything from our energy production systems, housing patterns, HVAC infrastructure, transportation systems, food production systems, etc., relies on fossil fuels. "Addiction" is probably not the right word to describe our relationship to oil in that addiction is a pathology that usually deviates from the norm. A more apt metaphor might be that we have constructed a skyscraper on a faulty foundation and we must rebuild it in place.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Climate Coup: Global Warming's Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives / Patrick J. Michaels, ed. -- Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2011

In the Introduction to Climate Coup, the volume's editor Patrick Michaels describes how he leads his students through an dialog in which he links climate change to any subject of public significance that his students can name. Furthermore, he claims that the effects that it is having are in general deleterious. He writes that this "game" is enjoyable, but rather than giving "glib answers to insouciant students," Michaels decided "to consult some experts" regarding his views. The result is Climate Coup, a volume containing eight papers discussing law, politics, defense, peer-review, trade, economic development, health, and education and their relationship to climate change.

Of Michaels's eight experts, five have positions (along with Michaels) with the Cato Institute, a sixth has been frequently published by the Cato Institute, a seventh works (along with Michaels) at the University of Virginia, and an eighth is a co-author with Michaels. This is not to say that none of the authors is well-regarded or does not have views worth serious consideration, but merely that by selecting these authors, Michaels is not really testing his hypothesis. The volume is, instead, an effort to make his case by employing his ideological allies, In general, the wider community of experts does not support his case.

Broadly put, Michaels and his co-authors argue that the dangers posed by climate change are overstated and that continued economic development is our best remedy for the harms it poses, even if that means continuing to emit carbon into the atmosphere.

The first chapter on law by Roger Pilon and Evan Turgeon is among the best. It lays out the legislative and legal history of environmental regulation, arguing that the executive branch is relatively free to implement whatever regulations it deems appropriate to protect us from climate change. This is judged to be overweening state power that is in conflict with the principles of limited government established by the Constitution. The value of this chapter lies in its legal brief related to the executive's regulatory power. It does not, however, make a particularly strong case that these powers are unconstitutional nor does it address the argument that the Constitution is an evolving document to be interpreted differently by different generations. In the late 18th century, limiting the power of the Crown may well have been a necessary political goal to provide the benefits described in the Constitution's Preamble, but limiting the power of a more democratic government may not be so critical in the early 21st century, particularly as we now understand how common market failures are and how disasterous they can be.

The second chapter is written by Michaels himself. It is among the weakest. He attempts to describe the recent political circumstance related to climate change policies and regulations, but fails to provide any coherent story that sheds light on our politics. It is instead, a hodge podge of disjointed observations related to cap and trade legislation, the "climategate" emails, the 2009 Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The third chapter, by Ross McKitrick, is a critique of the peer review process used by scientific journals. This is something that climate change "skeptics" have been complaining about for quite some time. They argue that the peer review process is controlled by a small group of editors who dismiss any findings that contradict the editors' views about climate change. Consequently, the appearance of a consensus has formed around specific climate change hypotheses, when in fact many scientists disagree with the received opinions.

It is interesting to note that the hypotheses that journal editors have been said to have summarily dismissed have changed. At first, the skeptics asserted that there was no real consensus that the planet is warming, but such views could not be published. Eventually, they began accepting that the planet is warming, but that the warming was not a product of human actions. Today, they appear to be coming around to accepting that human actions -- at least in part -- is warming the planet, but that the consequences of this are not as grave as is being asserted by the experts. The only consistency in the skeptics' position is that we shouldn't worry about climate change and that we should continue to emit carbon at the rates we have been, lest our economy suffer.

It is hard not to read McKitrick's complaints about the peer review process as so much sour grapes for not seeing his and his ideological friends' papers accepted for publication. If their arguments were genuinely strong, a cabal of editors could not keep them from the scientific community. Today, science employs "pre-publication" databases; the most prominent of which is arXiv (see which permits any academic or person sponsored by someone with posting privileges to post papers to the arXiv database. In many fields, particularly physics, publication in a peer reviewed journal will only occur after the paper has been posted to arXiv and has been favorably cited in arXiv by other researchers. Publication in a peer reviewed journal is becoming a way of archiving a finalized version of already well-received research. Pre-publication databases and other open source venues are eroding, if not destroying, the power of journal editors as gatekeepers of scientific research.

Ivan Eland's chapter is on U.S. security. Eland argues that the recent evaluations by the Defense Department overstate the dangers that climate change poses to U.S. strategic interests. His arguments are better than most in Climate Coup. Eland acknowledges that the most egregious effects of climate change are likely to affect Africa and southern Asia, but these regions historically have not been seen to be vital to US interests and, according to Eland, are not likely to be so in the future. More realistic threats to U.S. interests stem from the stationing of U.S. forces around the world. If these forces were brought home, the U.S. would not be blamed for the suffering that climate change might cause. Furthermore, the oceanic barriers that the U.S. enjoys will be sufficient to insulate the country from social and political upheavals in the rest of the world.

Eland's analysis is consistent with the growing isolationist tendency among libertarians and is compatible with the views of the peace movement of the American left. Furthermore, he indicts the Pentagon for exaggerating the security threat posed by climate change. Its motive is to justify continued or increased defense appropriations.

Among the better chapters in Climate Coup is Sallie James's article on international trade. James argues that any country that would unilaterally implement a policy to reduce carbon emissions will place itself in a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis countries that do not implement comparable policies. In this respect, she particularly criticizes cap and trade policies. In principle, this sounds right; however, it isn't clear how significant the disadvantage would be nor whether a cap and trade policy might not stimulate the creation of alternative industries that would in the long run provide an economic advantage to a carbon regulating country. Furthermore, she does not entertain the possibility that were the United States to show international leadership by passing a meaningful carbon tax, this would create an economic climate that would allow others to follow suit without economic disadvantage.

James also considers the possible equalizing effective of a tariff placed on goods coming from countries that do not take measures to reduce their carbon emissions. She concludes that either these countries would merely take their business elsewhere or the tariffs would ignite retaliatory measure that would destroy the possibility for international cooperation which is necessary to tackle a global problem like climate change.

While one might take issue with some of James's conclusions, one must acknowledge the expertise of neo-liberals regarding the dynamics of international trade. The dangers, however, must be weighed against the costs (often externalized) of continuing to emit carbon.

In the sixth chapter, Indur M. Goklony addresses the consequences of climate change on developing nations. It is widely believed that developing nations are most vulnerable to the harms that climate change threatens, both because of their geographies and their poverty. Goklony argues that imposing emission controls on developing nations will cripple their economic growth which will be necessary for mitigating or adapting to the harms of climate change.

Goklony's arguments are reprised in Robert E. Davis's chapter on health. Davis challenges the claim that climate change has caused significant health problems and will in the future cause significant health problems; however, the claim about the interaction of climate change and health in the past is of little consequence as few people argue that climate change has yet had a significant effect on public health. Regarding future health threats, it is hard to believe that the dislocation of coastal populations, droughts, floods, wildfires, and transformed ecosystems will not have significant effects on human health. Davis argues that populations have dealt with all of these kinds of problems in the past and with continued economic growth, health indicators will continue to improve even in the face of climate change.

The final chapter by Neal McCluskey examines how climate change is portrayed in primary and secondary schools. It is so riddled with elementary fallacies that it is not really worth reviewing.

The recurrent appeal to the importance of economic growth for addressing climate change is at the heart of Climate Coup. As climate skeptics have progressively abandoned positions that they have held previously, their arguments are crystallizing around the view that the dangers of climate change are too slight to justify public regulation of the industry. This should come as no surprise as the skeptics rarely are climate scientists, but are more often economists, businessmen, and politicians. Their stake in the carbon industry has been revealed by many including Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their excellent book, Merchants of Doubt, reviewed in this blog.

What is most worrying about the skeptics' public relations campaigns to stave off action to protect the planet is that as green house gases accumulate in the atmosphere, we genuinely risk reaching a tipping point that will propel the planet into a new stable state that makes civilization as we know it or even life itself impossible on the planet. To argue that we must continue down this path as the most effective way of escaping its dangers is a kind of brinksmanship that risks everything and it is based on scientific heterodoxy and a dubious economic theory.

At the same time, it is important to accurately assess the genuine dangers that climate change possess and not to overstate them, particularly as geo-engineering proposals are being seriously discussed. Geo-engineering would be enormously risky in that the unintended consequences of deliberately modifying the ecosystem to the extent that unprecedented climate change might be halted may cause greater problems still.