Thursday, December 16, 2004

A Haunting We Will Go

Ron Bailey continues to report from United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Buenos Aires. He summarizes the presentation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development which argues that steep reductions in carbon emissions are impossible. The presentation, delivered by David Hone from Shell and Mark Akhurst from British Petroleum, is essentially directed at the time frame during which a reduction in carbon emissions can be effected. Their basic methodology consisted of quantifying all the sources of carbon emissions and replacing them with nonemitters at rapid -- sometimes inconceivably rapid -- rates. In each case Hone and Ackhurst showed that the dropoff in carbon emissions would still take quite a long time.

Currently, humanity is fueled by 1000 1 gigawatt coal-fired power plants, 400 1 gigawatt oil-fired plants, 250 gas-fired plants, 350 nuclear power stations, 500 gigawatts of hydropower, 750 million fossil fueled vehicles, 130 exajoules for heating and cooling, 50 exajoules from the burning of traditional biomass.

Doing the math, in order to double the world's energy supplies over the next 50 years, the world will need to build, among other things, the equivalent of 2750 new 1 gigawatt natural gas-fired power stations, 1000 new coal-fired 1 gigawatt power plants with carbon capture, 1.5 million windmills deployed over a bit less than 300,000 square miles, 2150 new nuclear plants, 1500 new 1 gigawatt hydropower stations, not to mention new solar and biofuel technologies.

Recall that (Tony) Blair and others are calling for emission reductions of 60% by 2050. That would mean that instead of emitting 7 gigatons of carbon in 2050 under the WBCSD scenario, the world would emit only 2.8 gigatons of carbon annually. As the old saying goes, it may be that "you can't get there from here."

While the World Business Council's arithmetic may be impeccable, it is entirely beside the point. So what if a reduction in emissions by the means prescribed is impossible by 2050? Politicians don't want to hear it. And since politics very often consists of promising the impossible to the ignorant, the scientific bankruptcy of currently proposed Green initiatives is entirely irrelevant. Kyoto, like Peacekeeping is always good, though no one can say why. The climate change initiatives will continue to be put forward; they are an end in themselves. The more honest Greens might well concede the truth of the indictment yet argue that since one has to begin somewhere even a shambolic initiative is worthwhile.

In a lecture to Caltech students in 2003, Michael Crichton made two points which ironically skewer both the Greens and the counter-arguments of the World Business Council. Crichton began by pointing out that contemporary scientific policy is increasingly devoid of science.

But I did not expect science merely to extend lifespan, feed the hungry, cure disease, and shrink the world with jets and cell phones. I also expected science to banish the evils of human thought---prejudice and superstition, irrational beliefs and false fears. I expected science to be, in Carl Sagan's memorable phrase, "a candle in a demon haunted world." And here, I am not so pleased with the impact of science. Rather than serving as a cleansing force, science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity. ...

Crichton went on the examine the gigantic ruins of junk science policy like SETI and Nuclear Winter, occasingly stooping to hold up some minor artifact like puerperal fever, pellagra for inspection, like some archaeologist casting his eye over the folly of the past, every bit as laughable as the spine pads without once no European would venture into the tropical sun. He warned that we detach policy from science at our peril.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, the connection between hard scientific fact and public policy became increasingly elastic. In part this was possible because of the complacency of the scientific profession; in part because of the lack of good science education among the public; in part, because of the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy; and in great part because of the decline of the media as an independent assessor of fact. The deterioration of the American media is dire loss for our country. When distinguished institutions like the New York Times can no longer differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, but rather mix both freely on their front page, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard?

And so, in this elastic anything-goes world where science-or non-science-is the hand maiden of questionable public policy, we arrive at last at global warming. It is not my purpose here to rehash the details of this most magnificent of the demons haunting the world. I would just remind you of the now-familiar pattern by which these things are established. Evidentiary uncertainties are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for grants to support the policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron. Next, the isolation of those scientists who won't get with the program, and the characterization of those scientists as outsiders and "skeptics" in quotation marks-suspect individuals with suspect motives, industry flunkies, reactionaries, or simply anti-environmental nutcases. In short order, debate ends, even though prominent scientists are uncomfortable about how things are being done.

Yet he is not entirely kind to the sort of analysis which Hone and Ackhurst brought to the table. Crichton argues that though we can do no other, the simple extrapolation of the present into the future rarely holds. The unforseen will interpose.

Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit? Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?

But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport. And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. They didn't know its structure. They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS… None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn't know what you are talking about.

The two warnings, first against junk science and the second against the arbitrary prolongation of trends, if taken together must lead us to the conclusion that environmental policy should be a heuristic. It must be fundamentally grounded in science yet not so sure of itself as to establish tentative conclusions as dogma. This argues for a more flexible policy regime than those which set arbitrary targets, for finding a way of setting the orientation of the vector without specifying its length. Unfortunately that is not the way politics does business. A 'spectre is haunting Europe' -- and the world one might add -- the demon of pseudo-science against which rigorous argument has no effect. Until then, we must resort to Bell, Book and Blogger which alone can defeat it. Who said the Age of Magic was dead?