Monday, March 30, 2009

Al Gore and Earth Hour

This story's making the rounds today. Evidently Al Gore ignored Earth hour, or was less than completely observant. Evidently Mr. Gore has denied it, but I'm inclined to believe the eye witness account.

Many people have asked why this matters to anyone. They asked it when we found out Al Gore happily uses some 20 times the energy of a normal home in his residence. It was asked after the story broke that Mr. Gore leaves his SUVs with air conditioning running outside of environmental lectures he gives. It's not just taking glee in another person's hypocrisy. We're all imperfect from time to time.

Here's the crux of the issue. Let's start with the famous quotation Al Gore gave before Congress:
"The planet has a fever. If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don’t say, ‘Well, I read a science-fiction novel that told me it’s not a problem.’ If the crib’s on fire, you don’t speculate that the baby is flame-retardant."
Tangent: The science-fiction novel in question was "State of Fear" by Michael Crichton. Michael Crichton was a trained scientist-turned-writer. Al Gore is a politician-turned-activist.

The problem then, and why we look for Al Gore's hypocrisy is simple. Using his own analogy, if you really, truly believed the crib was on fire, you'd do your best to rescue the baby. It would not be enough for you that others were rushing to do it. It would not be enough for you that you paid for some of the water and firemen to put out the fire you helped start. You'd do your absolute best to stop lighting fires and to personally save the baby.

Al Gore isn't doing that.

If Al Gore isn't doing it, then he doesn't believe in his own claims, or at least doesn't believe the issue is as urgent as he's made it out to be, and that deeply undermines his message.

He is in good company, however. California is the state you might associate first with the environmental movement, and according to the power load numbers for the state, there was no noticeable dip in consumption during Earth Hour.

So, I'm much more inclined to listen to Michael Crichton than Al Gore. There's that Author's Message, by the way. I hope you'll buy the book and have a read.

Author's Message from State of Fear:

A novel such as State of Fear, in which so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues. I have been reading environmental texts for three years, in itself a hazardous undertaking. But I have had an opportunity to look at a lot of data, and to consider many points of view. I conclude:

* We know astonishingly little about every aspect of the environment, from its past history, to its present state, to how to conserve and protect it. In every debate, all sides overstate the extent of existing knowledge and its degree of certainty.

* Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing, and human activity is the probable cause.

* We are also in the midst of a natural warming trend that began about 1850, as we emerged from a four-hundred-year old cold spell known as the "Little Ice Age."

* Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon.

* Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made.

* Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century. The computer models vary by 400 percent, de facto proof that nobody knows. But if I had to guess --- the only thing anyone is doing, really --- I would guess the increase will be 0.812436 degrees C. There is no evidence that my guess about the state of the world one hundred years from now is any better or worse than anyone else's. (We can't "assess" the future, nor can we "predict" it. These are euphemisms. We can only guess. And informed guess is just a guess.)

* I suspect that part of the observed surface warming will ultimately be attributable to human activity. I suspect that the principal human effect will come from land use, and that the atmospheric component will be minor.

* Before making expensive policy decisions on the basis of climate models, I think it is reasonable to require that those models predict future temperatures accurately for a period of ten years. Twenty would be better.

* I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity, after two hundred years of such false alarms, is kind of weird. I don't know whether such a belief today is best ascribed to ignorance of history, sclerotic dogmatism, unhealthy love of Malthus, or simple pigheadedness, but it is evidently a hardly perennial in human calculation.

* There are many reasons to shift away from fossil fuels, and we will do so in the next century without legislation, financial incentives, carbon-conservation programs, or the interminable yammering of fear-mongers. So far as I know, nobody had to ban horse transportation in the early twentieth century.

* I suspect the people of 2100 will be much richer than we are, consume more energy, have a smaller global population, and enjoy more wilderness than we have today. I don't think we have to worry about them.

* The current near-hysterical preoccupation with safety is at best a waste of resources and a crimp on the human spirit, and at worst an invitation to totalitarianism. Public education is desperately needed.

* I conclude that most environmental "principles" (such as sustainable development or the precautionary principle) have the effect of preserving the economic advantages of the West and thus constitute modern imperialism toward the developing world. It is a nice way of saying, "We got ours and we don't want you to get yours, because you'll cause too much pollution."

* I believe people are well intentioned. But I have great respect for the corrosive influence of bias, systematic distortions of thought, the power of rationalization, the guises of self-interest, and the inevitability of unintended consequences.

* I have more respect for people who change their views after acquiring new information than for those who cling to views they held thirty years ago. The world changes, Ideologues and zealots don't.

* In the thirty-five-odd years since the environmental movement came into existence, science has undergone a major revolution. This revolution has brought new understanding of nonlinear dynamics, complex systems, chaos theory, catastrophe theory. It has transformed the way we think about evolution and ecology. Yet these no-longer-new ideas have hardly penetrated the thinking of environmental activists, which seems oddly fixed in the concepts and rhetoric of the 1970's.

* We haven't the foggiest notion how to preserve what we term "wilderness," and we had better study it in the field and learn how to do so. I see no evidence that we are conducting such research in a humble, rational and systematic way. I therefore hold little hope for wilderness management in the twenty-first century. I blame environmental organizations every bit as much as developers and strip miners. There is no difference in outcomes between greed and incompetence.

* We need a new environmental movement, with new goals and new organizations. We need more people working in the field, in the actual environment, and fewer people behind computer screens. We need more scientists and many fewer lawyers.

* We cannot hope to manage a complex system such as the environment through litigation. We can only change its state temporarily --- usually by preventing something --- with eventual results that we cannot predict and ultimately cannot control.

* Nothing is more inherently political than our shared physical environment, and nothing is more ill served by allegiance to a single political party. Precisely because the environment is shared it cannot be managed by one faction according to its own economic or aesthetic preferences. Sooner or later, the opposing faction will take power, and previous policies will be reversed. Stable management of the environment requires recognition that all preferences have their place: snowmobilers and fly fisherman, dirt bikers and hikers, developers and preservationists. These preferences are at odds, and their incompatibility cannot be avoided. But resolving incompatible goals is a true function of politics.

* We desperately need a nonpartisan, blinded funding mechanism to conduct research to determine appropriate policy. Scientists are only too aware whom they are working for. Those who fund research --- whether a drug company, a government agency, or an environmental organization --- always have a particular outcome in mind. Research funding is almost never open-ended or open-minded. Scientists know that continued funding depends on delivering the results the funders desire. As a result, environmental organization "studies" are every bit as biased and suspect as industry "studies." Government "studies" are similarly biased according to who is running the department or administration at the time. No faction should be given a free pass.

* I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.

* I personally experience a profound pleasure being in nature. My happiest days each year are those I spend in wilderness. I wish natural environments to be preserved for future generations. I am not satisfied they will be preserved in sufficient quantities, or with sufficient skill. I conclude that the "exploiters of the environment" include environmental organizations, government organizations, and big business. All have equally dismal track records.

* Everybody has an agenda. Except me.