The Climate Change Hoax (pt 2): Carbon, Cynics, and ConspiraciesPosted by Derek Satnik on Nov 18, 2015 in Policy, Renewables | 0 comments
By Derek Satnik.
(This is Part 2 of a multi-part article. Refer to Part 1 here.)
The Carbon Quandry
Political debates on climate change have focused, for right or wrong, on Carbon, which has been rather tragically abused in the debate on climate change. Carbon is one of the most basic elements of life, so it is abundantly present in the natural environment and can readily be measured. Al Gore is loved by some and hated by others for his documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth“, which popularized Carbon as a metric for climate change, and which greatly increased the Carbon literacy of the American public and indeed a good portion of the Western world. This is a very good thing, but the problem was that his documentary had some echoes of media motive throughout, and some of the science in the documentary was less than correct. Skeptics and cynics have used this against Gore to reject the film entirely: throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There is even an extensive article on wikipedia explaining the controversy of the hockey stick graph in particular.
For example, Gore bases much of his commentary on a graph which shows that carbon emissions are causing global temperature change… except that the graph actually (awkwardly) shows the opposite, or depending on who you listen to, doesn’t show anything at all. The graph offers two curves, one line representing global temperature and another representing the carbon content in the atmosphere. The graphs seem to actually indicate that as temperature rises, carbon follows, and indeed this matches the claims of several climatologists. Earth’s oceans are full of carbon dioxide: some climatologists have proposed that they absorb more when cooled, and release more when warmed. The Farmer’s Almanac has been known to literally predict the severity of the weather in future seasons based upon the activity of the sun today. In other words, the sun warms the oceans, and the oceans then affect global weather, and release Carbon. If the sun has an active year (more solar flares etc.), then the oceans will warm more quickly. If the sun has a relatively more calm year, then the oceans will cool slightly, absorbing more carbon. Gore’s graphs demonstrate this very well, but Gore himself explains it incorrectly.
The reality is that the world was warmer in the middle ages than it is now (Gore’s numbers are off on that point), and some skeptics have been right to point this out. Media excerpts from less than a generation ago include many references to a coming ice age: only one generation ago, our predecessors were so concerned about prolonged winters that they feared environmental catastrophes of quite the opposite nature to those our generation fears.
With all the debate between credible sounding people about such grandiose and intricate concepts, who do you believe? This entire discussion can be very frustrating to the average person.
A Little Bit of Cyanide…
The problem is that the controversy around the hockey stick graph misses the point entirely. Even if Gore got the graph backwards, and even if his entire film was false, it does not change the fact that measurable climate change is happening today, regardless of the cause. The Earth has natural cycles, and yes, it does go through warm and cool periods independent of human influence. In fact, the sun has a much greater impact on our weather than we ever will. The problem is that man now has the ability to interfere with the Earth’s natural cycles. And if we interfere sufficiently, then a very minor change can in fact throw the cycle out of balance.
Remember the cold war? One of the reasons it ended is because both sides realized that they had stockpiled so many nuclear weapons that open war could literally blow the Earth off balance. The media made a tremendous fuss out of this at the time. Humanity has literally become able to cause such a tremendous explosion on one side of the Earth that we can, within our own power, shift the Earth slightly on it’s axis. Imagine if the North Pole moved into the middle of Europe or Canada? Or if the South Pole moved from Antartica into the Pacific Ocean? That would cause more climate change than any of us can imagine.
Or consider trace chemistry. How much cyanide would it take to poison a person to death? The answer is as little as 0.0000015%: only 1.5 mg per kg of body weight. Such a small amount is called a “trace”: almost negligible, and yet fatal. The environment is very similar. If humanity manages to shift the ecological balance of any of the natural systems by just a trace amount, the whole system can unravel.
Consider what happens to the food chain if pesticides kill off all the polinating insects. The world is teeming with insects, so it is dangerously easy to assume that we could never kill off too many of them. But now that industry has transformed the agricultural sectors, there are literally thousands of acres of homogenous crops growing across the grain belt in the US, much of which is covered with the same pesticides. If all the polinators in a region are exterminated, then this is more than a trace impact on the local food chain. And now that the world’s food system is so integrated, impacts felt in one country’s struggling ecosystem will send echoes through the price on related food goods in many other countries, even if they know nothing at all about North American bees.
Al Gore may or may not have been wrong about Carbon, but if Carbon is a tool that will help the masses to start paying attention to the way the damage the environment, then it is a good tool. The tension with this tool is in its use.
The Eye of the Beholder
The tragic reality is that environmental issues are much bigger than all of us, and yet none of us can escape their consequences. The agricultural industry has been using phosphorous and nitrogen based fertilizers for decades now because these fertilizers help boost crop yields. The world’s poor need more food, so this is a very very good thing. The problem is that dirt doesn’t stay in one place forever, and dirt with fertilizers is no different. Eventually it rains, and the fertilizers get washed or drained into rivers that ultimately empty into oceans. Too much phosphorous and nitrogen at those basins has created lethal concentrations for marine life, and we now have dead zones in the oceans around all the world’s continents because of something we overlooked in the agricultural industry. I am sure no farmer meant to harm ocean life. The fertilizer companies were undoubtedly very proud of their ability to help feed the world’s poor. Death in the ocean is a major on the list of unintended consequences.
The tension with Carbon is similar. Carbon in and of itself is harmless. Indeed, Carbon is a necessary building block for life. Carbon is also a meaningful way to measure how much energy or material we are wasting. As a building block for life, carbon is a precious resource, and one that deserves more respect. The problem with all of this thinking is that it is ethereal, and making it practical requires the use of broad reaching tools that affect society as a whole: economic tools like trading systems or taxation.
Any discussion of a tax on Carbon immediately stirs up the entire subpopulation that opposes taxes of any kind for any reason. Discussions of trading (carbon credits or anything else) immediately stirs up the subpopulation that distrusts institutionalized finance, insurance, or government. If we’re honest, most of us find a home somewhere between those two groups. And hence, it becomes excessively challenging for our political leaders to help us find a coordinated way to address the collective harms that we are doing to our environment.
Skeptics, not Cynics
I’ve met all too many people who believe themselves to be skeptics, when in fact they are cynics. Skeptics are shrewd people who think things through: they do not simply accept what they hear on face value, they weigh it, consider it, evaluate its merits, and make a logical conclusion. They ask tough questions, and pursue good answers. When they receive a good answer, they test it, and then accept it. When they receive inadequate or broken answers, they push for better answers, or else remain skeptical. Cynics are quite different: they simply refuse to consider new information when it conflicts with their preconceived conclusions. Their ideas may be based on solid information, and may be adopted from reputable people, but the cynic has stopped learning. Cynics do not ask questions, they only attempt to poke holes in the information presented to them. Their questions are typically retorical, are often poorly or arrogantly presented, and rarely create healthy discussion.
Healthy debate needs a deep dose of skepticism, but cynics are useless. Be careful here: many of us are more cynical than we realize, and are only deceiving ourselves when we think otherwise. If you have stopped learning, then beware of your own cynicism. Many who oppose renewable energy today are pure cynics.
The Root of Cynicism
Unfortunately, cynicism seems often to be related to our assumed comforts. It is truly amazing what people can believe when their income depends on it. Unions have done wonderful things to the labour markets… but some unions have long achieved very safe and healthy working environments for their working members, and have instead become stale. I’ve worked with good unions, and I’ve worked with stale unions too: they complain about things that really are trivial, unwittingly creating cynical environments where entitlement trumps good rationale. Cynicism has taken over and replaced skepticism. I once worked with a man who was nearly run over by a drunken forklift driver at his place of work (a unionized factory). He filed a complaint with the Human Resources department and the drunken driver was fired. The driver then complained to the union and was re-hired for the fourth time. The union claimed that he was fired unjustifiably, and that rather than be fired, he simply “needed help”. This particular union had become cynical. If it was truly trying to protect and help workers then it would never have rehired a repeat offender.
At its root, cynicism is a form of unwillingness to consider new information. It is a blind perspective, closed in behind heavy doors, curtains drawn… locked in from the inside.
Much of the climate change debate is very cynical.
The problem with most cynics is that they’re right. At least partly. But being right about a few things does not make us experts in everything, and particularly with a large and complex topic like climate change, it is deadly when a cynic chooses to believe that they have “figured it all out” and then stops learning.
Many cynics to climate change will express competent concerns about globalization. Here again, the problem is that they’re right. Amid the endless trend toward globalization, we would do well to remember that all the great empires of our collective past, from the Babylonians to the Romans to the Mongols to today’s America and China, have ultimately struggled to maintain moral conscience. It has been said many times before that “power corrupts”, and that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. No great nation or empire has ever existed without it’s moral struggles. Each of the above mentioned nations struggled with basic human rights issues, and some of those struggles continue today in America and China, particularly in their international activities.
The problem with globalization is that it accentuates these struggles to the highest level. If we manage to successfully implement a global market for carbon trading, then the people who control that market will control the world’s economies. If those individuals happen to be less than perfectly moral, then none of the rest of us could prevent them from favouring one nation over another to their own personal advantage.
Don’t forget that carbon is one of the most basic elements of life: all life needs air, water, and food, and is built in various ways from water and carbon. Taxing carbon is literally like taxing life, and unless we have ultimate faith in those creating the tax system, or ultimate restraint upon their ability to create and enforce corrupt laws, then the cynics are right oppose what they see as an inevitable tyranny.
It is valid and noble to be concerned about such things. It is not noble to extrapolate these concerns beyond their scope, and to then assume that the entire discussion around carbon is a conspiracy, that renewable energy is tied to that conspiracy, or that local environmental groups are in any way related to globalists.
Does it Really Matter?
The debate on whether carbon emissions are killing us is not likely to end any day soon, but it is abundantly clear that human disregard for the environment, broadly speaking, is pushing the Earth’s natural cycles to their limits, and is taxing the Earth’s ability to heal itself. Hoax or not, if Carbon is a tool that will help the masses to start paying attention to the way they damage the environment, then imperfect as it is, it is a good tool.
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Derek Satnik is a LEED® Accredited Professional Engineer, and internationally awarded expert in sustainable housing and renewable energy systems. He lives in Kitchener at the Ontario Green Home (www.OntarioGreenHome.com), and is the Managing Director of local consultant Mindscape Innovations Group (www.mi-group.ca).