Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or nuclear power are extremely energy dense, perhaps delivering up to 1000W/m2- or 1-2 orders of magnitude greater.

Additionally, wind and solar are intermittent in that they only supply energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, and so would need a baseload back-up- typically natural gas- or a whole additional infrastructure of energy storage would be required, which is very expensive and the technology does not yet exist to do this at scale.

A third factor, which is a result of the first two, is the speed at which renewables can be deployed.

If decarbonisation is the goal, France decarbonised most of its electricity supply using nuclear power 6 times faster in the 1980s than the famous German Energiewende is achieving today:

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In MacKay’s last interview given to Mark Lynas shortly before his death (below), he is very outspoken about the lack of energy literacy applied to energy policy, leading to dangerous delusions:

there’s so much delusion, it’s so dangerous for humanity that people allow themselves to have such delusions, that they are willing to not think carefully about the numbers, and the reality of the laws of physics and the reality of engineering….humanity does need to pay attention to arithmetic ad the laws of physics.

He goes on to lament the emergence of a new delusion- that the  drop in price of solar and wind in recent years signifies a greater capacity for them to replace fossil fuels- but calculates that price would have to come down by a factor of 100 to make much difference (for battery storage also)- and even if they were free, they would still be just as costly in terms of land-use. Dream on…

Solar and wind can still play a role perhaps, in sunnier parts of the world, but is likely to remain relatively small. Although fossil fuels have dropped slightly in terms of their total share of supply to the UK, they still supply 85% of our power.

Meanwhile, in Germany they are also busy closing the largest supplier of low-carbon energy they have, and one would be forgiven in thinking that the decarbonisation agenda is really just a smoke-screen to facilitate the  traditional Green anti-nuclear agenda.

To replace fossil fuels, the only option is to move forward to a more energy dense fuel, not one that is 100 times more diffuse and intermittent to boot. Based on arithmetic, rather than ideology, in the foreseeable future that can only mean nuclear power.

If you are interested in honouring the legacy of David MacKay and would like to include arithmetic and basic engineering to promote a realistic energy policy, you can do worse than to start with reading his book, or if you prefer, watching his talk from 2010:

 

 

 

 

 

50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-anti-capitalist
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.

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Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:

Eco-Pragmatists:

Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010
http://www.greenspirit.com/index.cfm

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.

***

So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

Lynas: Green’s shameful stance over the Poor vs the Climate

In a follow-up to the discussion last week: Mark Lynas has another post on the issue of climate policies hurting the poor:

There is a very good reason why hurricanes of an equivalent ferocity kill thousands in a country like Myanmar or Haiti, but only a few dozen at most in the US or Australia. To be poor is to be vulnerable, even in today’s climate. The fact that only ‘climate sceptics’ tend make this point currently is somewhat shameful.

For Lynas to say this is very welcome- and brave- and seems highly significant, particularly as he fingers one of the leading climate change NGOs, Bill McKibben’s 350.org, saying in response to their “India Beyond Coal” day of action:

The costs of poverty – which includes millions of preventable deaths of young children, lack of access to water and sanitation, reduced livelihood prospects, large-scale hunger and malnutrition, and so on… are clearly much greater than the direct costs of coal burning, and this equation probably still holds even when the future damages from climate change are factored in.

In the comments, Barry Woods calls this “heresy” :

what I don’t understand, why Mark hasn’t been called a ‘coal shill’ or ‘climate denier’ yet by the usual suspects… any sceptic, writing this article would have been, as they have been pointing this dilemma out for years (Lomborg being one such voice, though like most sceptics he has never denied climate change, nor that man contributes)

c’mon. Mark has favourably cited the GWPF, that’s heresy.

Indeed I was called a “shill for Big Coal” for pointing out the same thing exactly on Mark’s previous post. Another comment points out how the IPCC scenarios are predicated on ongoing economic growth leading to most people coming out of poverty by 2100. Should the poor of today be made to pay for the problem’s of the wealthy of the future?

There is nothing wrong with letting the future rich pay for us poor. It is fundamentally unethical to make the poor of this century pay for the rich of this century by promoting the very expensive alternatives. (“No bread? Let them eat cake”). Just ask yourself: how many lives can we save here and now. The future will take care of itself, it always has.

Once again we have to ask: if there really is such justifiable concern over future global warming, why are current policies so hopelessly ineffective at actually reducing CO2, and seem designed only to keep the poor from having a taste of the energy bonanza we all take for granted?

Keeping the Poor in the Dark to save the Climate

I was asked on Twitter to comment on this post on “Confessions of a Former Climate Change Denialist”

It is a curious post. The author begins by making some valid concerns about the relative risks of climate change relative to other threats such as poverty:

Being a biology and ecology geek in high school, my mind nurtured environmental concerns, especially in my birth country, Iran, where air and environment pollution, uncontrolled hunting, deforestation and desert formation are rampant. When I first heard about climate change through media (nothing had been taught in school), I couldn’t help but see it as a distraction from more immediate issues — poverty, childhood mortality, wars and conflicts, pollution, and so on. It bothered me to think of countries coming together and people marching in the streets over such a hypothetical long-term effect while children die of preventable causes.

However, he does not repudiate or refute any of these moral concerns, but rather seems to reject them purely on the grounds that questioning the Climate Apocalypse hypothesis would assume a conspiracy- and then he would feel aligned with 9-11 Truthers or those who believe the moon landing was a hoax.

This is surely a non-sequitor- you can believe climate change is a risk without feeling it has to trump all other social and environmental concerns, surely? This is not climate change “denial” at all, and it troubles me that the author does not overcome the moral issues on moral grounds.

The argument that climate change may not be as great a concern as addressing poverty and human development is best made by Bjorn Lomborg, recently for example here:

While global warming will be a problem, much of the rhetoric is wildly exaggerated – like when UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon calls it “an existential challenge for the whole human race.” The IPCC finds that the total cost of climate change by 2070 is between 0.2pc and 2pc of GDP. While this is definitely a problem, it is equivalent to less than one year of recession over the next 60 years.

Global warming pales when compared to many other global problems. While the WHO estimates 250,000 annual deaths from global warming in 30 years, 4.3 million die right now each year from indoor air pollution, 800 million are starving, and 2.5 billion live in poverty and lack clean water and sanitation.

Moreover, no matter how bad you think global warming may be in the future, the wrong policies will be worse:

Climate policies can easily cost much more than the global warming damage will – while helping very little. The German solar adventure, which has cost taxpayers more than $130 billion, will at the end of the century just postpone global warming by a trivial 37 hours.

Robert Bryce also adresses the issue of what he calls “the most revolting tenet of the Left’s climate-change strategy: their desire to keep the poor in the dark.”

a coalition of U.S. environmental groups has convinced the Obama administration that it should oppose the financing of coal-fired power plants in developing countries out of concern for climate change. And the Obama administration has been doing just that. In July 2013, the Export-Import Bank, an export-credit agency backed by the U.S. government, voted to halt financing for the Thai Binh 2 power plant, a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired facility in northern Vietnam. At about the same time, the World Bank declared that it would limit financing of coal-fired-generation projects to “rare circumstances.”

For the developing world, where many millions have not yet had access to any kind of regular electricity, coal is by far the cheapest and quickest option, which means in reality the only option for now. The poor are being denied access to energy as a direct result of first-world, wealthy environmentalist concerns about the rather abstract and nebulous impacts of “climate change” at some unknown point a generation or two into the future.

This issue was also the subject of a recent exchange between Matt Ridley and Mark Lynas. Ridley kicked off with a post entitled “Greens Take the Low Moral Ground” :

the cost of climate policies is already falling most heavily on today’s poor. Subsidies for renewable energy have raised costs of heating and transport disproportionately for the poor. Subsidies for biofuels have raised food prices by diverting food into fuel, tipping millions into malnutrition and killing about 190,000 people a year. The refusal of many rich countries to fund aid for coal-fired electricity in Africa and Asia rather than renewable projects (and in passing I declare a financial interest in coal mining) leaves more than a billion people without access to electricity and contributes to 3.5 million deaths a year from indoor air pollution caused by cooking over open fires of wood and dung.

Greens think these harms are a price worth paying to stop the warming. They want (other) people to bear such sacrifices today so that the people of 2100, who will be up to seven times as rich, do not have to face the prospect of living in a world that is perhaps 0.8 – 1.2 degrees warmer. And this is the moral high ground?

Lynas’ response correctly identifies the dilemma- that poor climate policies will hurt the poor- but focuses on what he calls Ridley’s “climate change denial”:

This is a familiar paradox, and one that has been pointed out by many people (e.g. Breakthrough Institute and Roger Pielke Jnr. There is no doubt that global energy production is going to have to double, triple or even quadruple this century in order to allow for economic development and poverty eradication worldwide. This is one of the reasons I have supported nuclear power, which along with renewables can offset the use of coal and other fossil fuels in producing this much-needed increase in energy supplies….

What bugs me however is that Ridley resolves this paradox instead by denying the gravity of global warming.

He then agreed to publish on his blog this response from Ridley:

Does Mark think dangerous warming is inevitable? I doubt it. Does he think he can rule out non-dangerous warming? I hope not. It would require cherry-picking to achieve that. The IPCC gives a range of outcomes from harmless to harmful. I think the lower end of the range is more plausible. Mark thinks the higher end is more plausible. But we are both within the range of outcomes. How does that make me a “denier”?

Whatever about the technical details of climate sensitivity etc, Lynas failed to address the issue that current climate policies- driven by climate alarmism and fear-mongering- are ineffective in terms of reducing CO2 emissions, while clearly also hurting the poor now. And yes, despite Lynas’ objections, these do of course include biofuels which are indeed clearly a result of renewables quotas on the back of climate policies, (and some environmental NGOs some do still support biofuels) locking in the state subsidies we still have today.

Of course Lynas should be applauded for his stance on nuclear and GMOs, yet he seems unwilling to accept that many of the same voices to claim the sky is falling on climate also oppose GMOs and nuclear power- and that these are all ways of keeping the poor poor while hindering actions that could also reduce CO2.

Lynas was gracious enough to apologise for the slur of “denier” against Ridley:

Yes, I withdraw that accusation, with apologies. It is clear from this response that he is a ‘lukewarmer’ – I checked with him and he is OK with that particular moniker.

Mark

Mark should have known better- he must realise that Matt Ridley has never “denied” CO2 as a warming gas or its likely contribution to recent (slight) warming- he merely takes issue with the more alarmist speculations of climate catastrophe.

But scroll further down the comments though and you will see that the climate crazies have come out in force:

I think it is high time that we take global warming to be what it truly is, an existential threat that, if left un-mitigated in the very immediate future, will lead to the deaths of over 1 billion human beings over the next 5 decades.

In this circumstance, likely an understatement if current groundwater depletion trends continue, then those among us who ARE climate deniers are WORSE than holocaust deniers, by several magnitudes of order. (being that the deaths may yet be avoided!)

People are already dying- of poverty. It is pointed out of course that it is the poor who will be most at risk from climate change- yes, indeed they will- because they are poor.

Addressing poverty now, bringing people out of poverty right now, in the fastest way possible, is the best way to help the environment. Once out of the drudgery of subsistence agriculture, people have more security and thus tend to reduce their birth rates, and have more options in terms of efficient use of resources. As they get richer still, some of them may even become environmentalists themselves, a luxury only the well-off can afford. As the whole world gets richer, the options for technological innovation to help decarbonisation efforts will increase.

For many environmentalists, this is not the plan at all. Underpinned by a legacy of misanthropy and pseudo-religious Nature worship, innovation is rejected in favour of moralistic powerdown programs that apply only to the poor and not to themselves. There is no politically or ethically feasible way forward that does not first address poverty, and climate policies that do not prioritise this should be rejected. Until Greens understand and accept this, they will languish in the moral basement.

Rachel Carson, DDT and the Greens

At the end of 2010 Channel 4 broadcast a fascinating documentary called What the Greens Got Wrong.

There was a lively studio debate afterwards featuring Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, with GMOs and nuclear power were the main topics under discussion. Another controversy, perhaps even more fundamental to the canon of Green thinking was also scrutinized, and lead to a somewhat acrimonious exchange between Stewart Brand and George Monbiot: Rachel Carson and DDT.

In his book Whole Earth Discipline Brand writes of the legacy of Rachel Carson and the subsequent *restrictions* on DDT use to combat malaria:

Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not) … In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said: ‘The ban on DDT may have killed 20m children.’

and rightly, Monbiot asks for sources for this claim: are the Greens really to blame for 20million deaths? This is a serious charge and demands suitably verifiable references.

Brand just refers him back to Robert Gwadz, a source Monbiot apparently has no interest in pursuing, instead over-playing his hand against Brand, as Keith Kloor noted at the time:

Well, to my eyes, Monbiot is swinging wildly with the charge of Brand being little more than a corporate shill. It’s too bad, too, because Monbiot was clearly winning on points with all the tight jabs that did hit their mark in his latest post.

Roll forward three-and-a-half years to yesterday’s World Malaria Day and Monbiot has post discussing his recent interview with another prominent Green Heretic James Lovelock concerning his new book A Rough Ride to the Future in which Lovelock repeats the same claims as Brand, apparently also without references:

Neither Rachel Carson, nor the green movement – nor the US government seemed aware of the dire human consequence of banning the manufacture of DDT and its lookalikes before substitutes were available … In 1963 malaria was about to become effectively controlled. The insecticide ban led to a rise in malaria deaths to 2 million yearly, plus over 100 million disabled by the disease.

Monbiot tells the same story that he told in 2010: there was no worldwide ban; DDT was no longer effective for malaria vector control due to over-use in agriculture; the Stockholm convention which regulates pesticide use permits DDT use for disease vector control; the whole story about DDT bans and millions of deaths is just a trumped up slur against the noble green movement and the honorable legacy of Rachel Carson by right-wing think tanks in the pay of Big Tobacco.

Not so fast. It seems to me there is rather more to this story than Monbiot and other Green apologists would like us to believe.

For a start, with reference to the Tobacco industries’ conspiracy and Monbiot’s claim of “paid astro-turfers” it turns out that things are not so simple. Fascinatingly according to Matt Ridley, Rachel Carson’s mentor William Heuper fully supported her views on DDT and other agrochemical carcinogens, and believed himself that the targeting tobacco as a cause of cancer- which was only really taking off in the 1960s and ’70s- was a plot to detract attention away from agrochemicals.

So obsessed was Hueper with his notion that pesticides and other synthetic chemicals were causing an epidemic of cancer and that industry was covering this up, that he bitterly opposed the suggestion that smoking take any blame – as an industry plot.

Elsewhere, the tobacco industry has also seen its interests threatened by the continuing use of DDT, thus indirectly finding common cause with environmentalists:

Yet British American Tobacco, in a coalition with many other corporations in Uganda, has called for a delay to the spraying program, warning that the use of DDT could threaten lucrative exports of tobacco, coffee, cut flowers and other agricultural products.

It seems to me that Monbiot resorts to paranoid conspiracy theories because he cannot substantiate his claims either. On Twitter yesterday I asked George whether he was 100% sure that environmental campaigns against DDT might not have contributed to the post-mid-1960s resurgence of malaria, sighting this paper on malaria in India:

In 1947, when India became independent, 75 million malaria cases in a population of 330 million were estimated.7 During the eradication era in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a spectacular achievement was witnessed on the malaria eradication front because malaria cases significantly declined to just 100,000 in 1964. However, reversal was experienced, and malaria staged a comeback. By 1976, malaria cases had touched the 6.4 million mark. A continued rise in P. falci-parum was witnessed, and its proportion has gradually risen to nearly 50% in recent years

Monbiot responded tersely:

-but in fact this is quite wrong: drug resistance is a separate issue that made treating malaria much harder, while no mention is made of DDT resistance. The Monbiot refused to correct himself on this, his rude and defensive tone betraying his desperate need to defend the Greens from any historical wrong-doing at all costs:

Instead, he could have simply referenced the Wikipaedia article on DDT which provides a good summary and confirms that DDT resistance was becoming a growing problem in the 1960s threatening to roll back many of the gains made in the previous couple of decades. However, it is NOT clear that this is what lead to the dramatic come-back made by the disease in the late-1960s:

In 1955, the World Health Organization commenced a program to eradicate malaria worldwide, relying largely on DDT. The program was initially highly successful, eliminating the disease in “Taiwan, much of the Caribbean, the Balkans, parts of northern Africa, the northern region of Australia, and a large swath of the South Pacific”[26] and dramatically reducing mortality in Sri Lanka and India.[27] However widespread agricultural use led to resistant insect populations. In many areas, early victories partially or completely reversed and, in some cases, rates of transmission even increased.[28] The program was successful in eliminating malaria only in areas with “high socio-economic status, well-organized healthcare systems, and relatively less intensive or seasonal malaria transmission”.

So, yes, it is indeed true that DDT resistance contributed to a resurgence of malaria in some countries- those without the means for a more comprehensive campaign relying not only on DDT but also including other environmental controls and public health measures; but this does not entirely let the Greens off the hook

A couple of things do not add up in the environmentalists’ defence since we are told repeatedly that DDT was never banned for vector control. The question is, which Monbiot (nor Quiggin and Lambert, who he references) does not address, instead deflecting the attention away with paranoid ramblings about paid astro-turf groups) is whether the 1972 US domestic ban for agricultural use made it hard to get for health workers in the field- this after all was the original claim made by Gwadz:

Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.”

(emphases added.)

Wiki states:

Spraying programs (especially using DDT) were curtailed due to concerns over safety and environmental effects, as well as problems in administrative, managerial and financial implementation, but mostly because mosquitoes were developing resistance to DDT

So the availability of DDT may be a mute point if it had been found to be ineffective anyway and was no longer being used.

There was indeed an environmental camapaign against DDT in the late-60s post- Silent Spring:

DDT became a prime target of the growing anti-chemical and anti-pesticide movements, and in 1967 a group of scientists and lawyers founded the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) with the specific goal of winning a ban on DDT.

Why was this necessary, one wonders, if DDT was already falling into disuse due to resistance?
According to this statement by the WHO in 2006

Nearly thirty years after phasing out the widespread use of indoor spraying with DDT and other insecticides to control malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that this intervention will once again play a major role in its efforts to fight the disease.

-suggesting that DDT for vector control used in IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) WAS severely curtailed, contradicting somewhat complacent claims by Monbiot that there was no restriction on its use for this purpose.

Wiki cites other reasons for the return of malaria apart from insect resistance:

WHO’s anti-malaria campaign of the 1950s and 1960s relied heavily on DDT and the results were promising, though temporary. Experts tie the resurgence of malaria to multiple factors, including poor leadership, management and funding of malaria control programs; poverty; civil unrest; and increased irrigation.

while countries who stopped using DDT experienced an increase in malaria:

According to DDT advocate Donald Roberts, malaria cases increased in South America after countries in that continent stopped using DDT. Research data shows a significantly strong negative relationship between DDT residual house sprayings and malaria rates. In a research from 1993 to 1995, Ecuador increased its use of DDT and resulted in a 61% reduction in malaria rates, while each of the other countries that gradually decreased its DDT use had large increase in malaria rates.

The reports are mixed: banning DDT for agricultural use may have saved lives by slowing the development of resistance; on the other hand, why was it still permitted- or used- in vector control if resistance had been such a problem? How long after the agricultural ban does resistance stop being a problem? The patterns of resistance and use in agriculture vis-a-vis vector control seem to be complex and vary considerably from country to country.

It has also been alleged that donor governments and agencies have refused to fund DDT spraying, or made aid contingent upon not using DDT. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, use of DDT in Mozambique “was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.”[130] Roger Bate asserts, “many countries have been coming under pressure from international health and environment agencies to give up DDT or face losing aid grants: Belize and Bolivia are on record admitting they gave in to pressure on this issue from [USAID].”

More weight to the claim that environmental campaigns hindered the availability of DDT in some countries where it was badly needed comes from this letter to The Lancet in 2000, quoted in the comments under Monbiot’s Guardian article yesterday:

Since the early 1970s, DDT has been banned in
industrialised countries and the interdiction was gradually
extended to malarious countries. The bans occurred in
response to continuous international and national
pressures to eliminate DDT because of environmental
concerns…..Despite objections by notable malariologists, the move away from spraying houses was progressively
strengthened by WHO’s malaria control strategies of 1969,
1979, and 1992. These strategies were adopted even
though published WHO documents and committee reports
have consistently and accurately characterised DDT sprayed
houses as the most cost effective and safe approach
to malaria control…..Other mechanisms also have been used by
environmental advocates to stop use of DDT for malaria
control. A recent example is the agreement of the North
American Commission for Environmental Cooperation
(CEC) that forced Mexico to stop producing and using
DDT for malaria control. This agreement also eliminated
a rare source of DDT for malaria control in other countries
in South America…….Numerous epidemics have occurred in many countries,
after suspension of DDT house treatments, such as
Swaziland (1984) and Madagascar (1986–88), where
malaria killed more than 100 000 people….Today, few countries still use DDT and most have no way to even buy this insecticide…The position of
many scientists concerned about increasing malaria was
described in an open letter that was subsequently signed
by over 380 scientists, including three Nobel laureates in
medicine, representing 57 countries. The letter supports
continued use of DDT and residual spraying of houses for
malaria control.

This letter was covered by the Guardian at the time:

“While it is true that we don’t know every last risk of using DDT, we know very well what the risk of malaria is – and on balance malaria is far, far more deadly than the worst that one could imagine about DDT,” said Amir Attaran, director of the Malaria Project in Washington. He and the Malaria Foundation International organised the open letter.

In 2001, Greenpeace were campaigning to “close down the only major DDT production facility in the world, located in Cochin, India.”

Others who could claim to have some personal experience in malaria-torn countries and the use of DDT in both agriculture and disease control who finger the Greens include
Norman Borlaug (though he makes no reference to the possibility that resistance had become a problem); and
Anthony Trewavas in a letter to Nature (which I do not have access to);

According to an editorial in The Economist in 2000

In the early 1990s, for example, the United States Agency for International Development stopped the governments of Bolivia and Belize from using DDT. In Madagascar, the United Nations Development Programme tried to persuade the government to replace DDT with Propoxur, a less effective pesticide. To its credit, Madagascar refused. In Mozambique, both NORAD, the Norwegian development agency, and SIDA, its Swedish counterpart, said that they could not support the use of DDT, as it was banned in their own countries. That the problems of a desperately poor malarial country in Africa might be somewhat different from those of wealthy, non-malarial Scandinavia seems not to have occurred to them.

Monbiot would have is believe that all of these opinions of experts- including Gwadz and Roberts who are experts in the field with decades of experience in malaria control, and the 380 scientists and malaria experts including three Nobel Laureates who signed the Washington Malaria Project Open Letter are just the lazy and ideological parrots of a conspiracy perpetrated by tobacco industry shills.

To accept this is to deny the wider legacy and ideological roots of the environmental movement. As Jon Entine expalains in his book Scared to Death- How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health the post- Silent Spring DDT debate took place in the context of a growing political environmentalism that was often misanthropic in nature:

The issue of restricting population growth played into the debate over DDT in a disconcerting way. The public was confronted with Ehrlich’s (erroneous) conviction that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in coming decades because of overpopulation. The issue of withdrawing anti-malarial programs as a means of population control was broadly discussed and debated. In his book, Ehrlich himself appeared to “blame” DDT for saving lives, exacerbating the overpopulation problem: “The introduction of DDT in 1946 brought rapid control over the mosquitoes which carry malaria. As a result, the death rate on the island [of Ceylon] was halved in less than a decade. … Death control [DDT use] did not reach Colombia until after World War II. … Each child adds to the impossible burden of a family and to the despair of a mother.” (Ehrlich 1968)

As with many other instances of over-zealous application of the Precautionary Principle, Entine explains:

The paradigmatic example of an overreaction is what happened to DDT, the insecticide targeted by Rachel Carson. DDT remains the totemic villain of the environmental movement, but it has saved more lives from malaria and other insect-borne diseases than any other chemical. In retrospect, the ban on DDT has proven to be a mistake of tragic proportion. In the early 1960s, several developing countries had nearly wiped out malaria. After they stopped using the insecticide, other control methods had only modest success and malaria came raging back. In one of many examples, in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), DDT spraying had reduced malaria cases from 2.8 million in 1948 to 17 by 1963.

Entine concludes that although most environmental NGOs now accept DDT use for vector control, they should not be let ignore the costs of past actions:

Given the state of the science at the time Carson wrote her book, one might generously make the case that her concerns about the potentially unknown effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not unwarranted. Some key facts were unclear. But after four decades chasing the potential risks of DDT and certain other chemicals without measurably improving world health, and is some cases degrading it, her followers in the environmental movement bear the responsibility of wasting billions of dollars and destroying millions of lives.

Exaggerated environmental alarmism is liable to cause, and is responsible for, a great deal of human suffering, a current issue being the campaign by Greenpeace and the Organic movement against Golden Rice. This is an asymmetric story of wealthy westerners with idealistic environmental obsessions interfering with the much more immediate life-and-death concerns of the poor. The South African journalist Ivo Vegter points out in his book Extreme Environment: How environmental exaggeration harms emerging economies how convenient it was for the US to plan a ban on DDT use in 1971, just after the last developed nation had eradicated malaria from its own shores.

He sums up the DDT debate:

Both sides are wrong. Both sides are guilty of exaggeration. And neither side does the rest of us any favours by their shrill extremism.
Rachel Carson was not evil. She raised very real problems, which in the preceding years had several times made newspaper headlines across her native United States….

In particular, Carson did not advocate ignoring insect-born diseases merely because combating them might require chemical pesticides. What she actually said was ‘Practical advice should be “spray as little as you possibly can” rather than “Spray to the limit of your capacity”‘.

Monbiot is right to challenge the hyperbole of comparing Rachel Carson to Hitler and blaming her personally for tens of millions of deaths, but this does not exonerate the environmental movement which continues to try to ban useful and life-saving technology due to narcissistic fears more than any science, from GMOs to nuclear power to neonicotinoids.

And Monbiot is guilty of his own hyperbole when it suits him. He calls out Lovelock:

James repeats and embellishes an extraordinary and disgraceful myth, first circulated a few years ago by corporate-funded astroturfers, that green campaigners are responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

But is this really any worse than Monbiot himself making unsubstantiated hyperbolic claims such as this about climate change?

This is the great moral issue of the twenty-first century, and if we don’t deal with climate change, we condemn hundreds of millions of people to death.

Is not this accusation -that those who obstruct (a particular kind of) “action on climate” are “worse than Hitler” the origin of the word “denier” which Monbiot is happy to use himself in his rhetoric?

Stay tuned- this is a topic I hope to return to quite soon….

Greens to the Left- or Greens to the Right?

“You’re so Right-wing!” So I was told recently by one of my students who took exception to my pro-fact pro-evidence- based stance on things like genetic engineering and nuclear power. Another blurted out at me when I suggested her complaints about my course were mainly political “no it doesn’t matter how much of a fascist you are- if only you teach the course properly!”– which apparently means not presenting any facts or information unless they have been vetted and blessed in advance by her.

This kind of feed-back suggests that many prevailing views within the environmental movement are traditionally- even unquestioningly- considered to be “left-wing” and “progressive”: the struggle to protect pristine Nature and keep nasty chemicals and other such horrors out of our food and water share common cause with defending the rights of the common man against the ravages of untrammeled corporate capitalism.

Is this really the case? Or does environmentalism have its roots in the far-right? Or is it a strange hybrid of both Left and Right?

In a radio presentation last year Brendan O’Neill calls the more recent alliance between Green and Red a “historic betrayal”:

in going green the left has signaled abandonment of values that distinguished it from more conservative static views

This betrayal can be seen most clearly in the the original environmental cause of over-population, which comes of course from Malthus. But Malthus was an arch-enemy of Marx and Engels: Marx described him as ‘a professional sycophant of the landed aristocracy’ who was intent on ‘building the capitalist case for the inevitability of poverty’ (quoted by O’Neill here)

In other words, Malthus’ theory was entirely self-serving: the threat of a “population bomb” in the phrase of his more recent successor Paul Ehrlich, was invented in order to refute the radical idea that the poor and down-trodden would be able to overthrow their oppressors and that humanity in general- not just the ruling classes of whom Malthus was a member- would be able to improve their lot and aspire to greater things than just subsistence.

Marx and Engels disagreed with Malthus’ basic premise that over-population was a result of the Laws of Nature: rather, they saw the negative consequences of rapidly increasing populations as being the result of the social system, with specific causes according to the state of evolution of the society: in developing nations, it was a result of the legacy of colonialism; in capitalist nations, tied in with the Principle of the Reserve Army of Labour: in Marxist theory, capitalism required a large number of unemployed to draw on in times of rapid economic growth.

According to socialist theory, human problems are more social than natural; far from being the prisoner of Nature or Divinity, O’Neill argues there are no natural limits, but merely limits to our social imagination. He quotes Francis Bacon who stated that our mission is “to put nature on the rack and extract her secrets” and Sylwia Pankhurst who said “socialism means abundance for all… a great production that can provide more than we can consume.”

“How times have changed” laments O’Neill: through environmentalism, the Left is now at the forefront of arguing for natural limits; “Nature” is depicted as sentient force that punishes, and we see a return to 19th Century ideas of mankind as prisoner of nature.
Some even say we cannot end poverty:
Mark Lynas has claimed “the struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for and intact and functioning biosphere.”

Although some greens, like Lynas, have repudiated the more obvious shortcomings of Malthus and distanced themselves from his incipient racism, O’Neill argues in his review of Fred Pearce’s PeopleQuake that they have really just re-phrased the reactionary case for limits by claiming it is not population per se that will be our undoing, but consumption:

Pearce describes Earth as a ‘finite planet’ and bizarrely claims that we are ‘consuming 30 per cent more resources each year than the planet produces’. This overlooks the fact – recognised by true humanists – that there is nothing fundamentally finite about Earth or its resources, since what we consider to be, and use as, a resource changes as society itself develops. The Malthusian idea that nature’s limits mean people must inevitably live in poverty is here. ‘It is of course true that poor people with small ecological footprints may grow rich… eventually assuming footprints as great as ours. If they do that, it is hard to see anything other than disaster ahead’, says Pearce.

How did this come about? While some from the Right have claimed that environmentalism is really just the new guise of socialism, trying to come in unnoticed through the backdoor as it were, Rupert Darwall, in The Age of Global Warming argues rather that after the Berlin Wall came down, the Left was simply too insipid to resist the rise of neo-Malthussians from the Far Right, with their Limits to Growth philosophy, and simply became subsumed by it.

The timing of the demise of Marxism as a living ideology meant that global warming never had to contend with opposition from the Left of the political spectrum.

Without even being aware of what had happened, the post-Soviet Left took on the mantle of much darker forces of environmentalism, inspired as they were by the early eugenics movement in Britain and the nature-worship and occult mysticism of the Nazis.

These origins can be most clearly seen today in the retro-romantic organics movement, still shaped and inspired by the cult of Steiner and his occult version of farming called biodynamics, which found common cause with the Blood and Soil- Blut und Boden– philosophy of the Nazis, as Staudenmaier has documented:

we find that the “ecological scene” of our time -with its growing mysticism and anti-humanism- poses serious problems about the direction in which the ecology movement will go…these reactionary and outright fascist ecologists emphasize the supremacy of the “Earth” over people; evoke “feelings” and intuition at the expense of reason; and uphold a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusianbiologism. Tenets of “New Age” eco-ideology that seems benign to most people in England and the United States – specifically, its mystical and anti-rational strains- are being intertwined with ecofascism in Germany today.

Likewise the leaders of the anti-GMO movement and their allies, far from being representative of the Common Man or the rights of workers, are instead emanating from the privileged classes, lead by figures such as Goldsmith and Prince Charles, in the tradition of Schumacher, with paternalistic view of humanity that would not be so far from the contempt expressed by Malthus.

The fear of over-population, of the Yellow Peril or its equivalent, is still evident behind much anti-technology thinking amongst today’s Greens. Once, after a class discussion on global poverty and development, in which I expressed the hope that through technology and other factors, the bottom billion in the world might sometime improve their lot sufficiently to have at least some of the benefits that we have in the richer parts of the world, one earnest young student, no doubt considering himself radical and “left-wing” made a point of coming up to me afterwards to say emphatically: “No. We must stop them! They are much better off being poor.”

This blurring of the Left into the Far Right is also evident in the figure of the darling of the anti-GMO movement Vandana Shiva.

According to Noel Kinsbury in Hybrid:the History and Science of plant breeding

Meera Nanda, a leading Indian critic of what she calls “reactionary postmodernism,” points out, “the populist left opposition to the Green Revolution, GM crops, and other science intensive initiatives, is routinely co-opted by the ultra-nationalist, autarkic, elements of the Hindu right.” Shiva has been interviewed and favorably quoted by The Organiser, the journal of the Rashtriya Swayamsavak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization, the sight of whose members marching in formation wearing khaki shorts, is a powerful and frightening reminder of its original inspiration—Hitler’s brownshirts.554 Identity politics is the natural playground of the political Far Right. In rejecting the universality of Enlightenment values, antiscience critics on the Left have found themselves sharing a bed with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Despite Shiva’s best efforts at condemning the poor farmers of her country to remain in their “natural state” of peasantry forever, many Indian farmers showed they had other ideas:

Shiva’s “Operation Cremate Monsanto” had spectacularly failed, its anti-GM stance borrowed from Western intellectuals had made no headway with Indian farmers, who showed that they were not passive recipients of either technology or propaganda, but could take an active role in shaping their lives. What they did is also perhaps more genuinely subversive of multinational capitalism than anything GM’s opponents have ever managed.

Greens often seem far more concerned that a corporation like Monsanto might make filthy profits than ordinary farmers might actually benefit from the technology they have developed, just as green activists themselves seem only too happy to use technology such as computers, cars and airplanes, and organic farmers to use polytunnels and tractors and pop to the supermarket for cheap industrial food when it suits them.

There are of course many political causes that one might want to support. Today’s mega-corporations should be held accountable for their workers’ conditions, and should be compelled to pay their taxes. I am more than willing to hear good well-thought out political arguments concerning social justice etc; unfortunately it is very rare if ever these days that I hear any such argument from Greens, so completely dominated they seem to have become by eco-fascist ideology and back-to-nature woo-woo naturalistic beliefs.

And thus I find myself in the peculiar situation of being insulted as being “right-wing” for defending ideas that are in fact far closer to traditional Marxism: that progress and innovation and technology are generally forces for good, and that human creativity is, almost by definition, something that uniquely can break the chains of natural limits.

Who is the Most anti-Science of Them All?

A fascinating debate was recently aired by the Canadian public affairs program The Agenda With Steve Paikin featuring Michael Shermer, Chris Mooney and Mark Lynas.

The topic under discussion was whether the charge of being “anti-science” was just as valid for the Left as for the Right.

Shermer, a libertarian skeptic thinks yes- there is Liberal War on Science; Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, disagrees. In a strongly entitled piece for Mother Jones There is no such Thing as a Liberal War on Science he argues that although liberals and the Left certainly reject science on specific topics such as vaccines and GMOs, these positions have been marginalised by the mainstream Left/Liberal political establishment, while on the Right, “Republicans today are majority creationist (58 percent, according to Gallup) and majority climate denier.”

As Lynas says, the political spectrum is not clearly divided along these lines in Europe; the alignment of the US Republican Party with creationist religion does not really have a parallel here, so while there are some similarities, this discussion is no doubt colored by my Euro-centric bias.

Mooney goes on to say

polls alone don’t tell enough of the story. Evolution denial and climate denial on the right are much more politically problematic—because conservatives, not liberals, are going around trying to force these wrongheaded views on children in schools. Oh, and by the way: By denying global warming, they also jeopardize the planet and the well-being of humanity. In my view, not all wrong beliefs are equally harmful—rather, wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences.

There is a couple of things wrong with this position I think, as Mooney fails to distinguish between very different kinds of scientific issues, and their policy implications.

Firstly, the issue of conservatives trying to force “anti-science” views on schoolchildren made me think immediately of an instance of this from the Left: Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was incorporated into the school curriculum in the UK, leading to a court action by a concerned parent. The judge upheld the complaint that the film contained many scientific inaccuracies, including that

The film said a sea-level rise of up to 20ft would be caused by melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland in the near future; the judge ruled that this was “distinctly alarmist”

I am not suggesting that this is directly comparable to teaching creationism or denying evolution; on the other hand, it seems inescapable that this is indeed an example of politics masquerading as science, and as such its placing in schools in this way is highly questionable. There is no scientific debate about evolution vs Intelligent Design, but to pretend that everything about man-made global warming is “settled science” – including what to do about it (Gore’s film implies that changing your lightbulbs might be an appropriate response to ensuring Manhattan is not inundated with sea water) is itself political.

(Ironically, Shermer used to question climate science himself, and cites An Inconvenient Truth as one of the influences that made him change his mind.)

Secondly, Mooney does not really address Shermer’s point that Republicans only reject science on these specific topics because they conflict with specific beliefs they have. While Creationism is a core belief of many right-wing Christians, and climate change skepticism a reaction to what they see as a ruse to impose more government regulation on every aspect of their lives, they do not take an “anti-science” position per se.

On the Left however, despite scientists and academics being overwhelmingly liberal themselves as both Mooney and Shermer agree, there tends to be an underlying current of suspicion of science in and of itself. The liberal mind wants purity of nature and purity of their bodies, and is prone to suffer excruciatingly from the naturalistic fallacy; they are more likely to be anti-technology which they distrust as leading to yet more environmental destruction and an aspect of increased corporate control- even when being introduced for humanitarian reasons as with Golden Rice.

This callousness of progressive activists towards the poor who really need access to better technology also calls into question Mooney’s claim that they are motivated emotionally by sticking up for the underdog and fighting against injustice: all too often, the main priority seems to be just to kick “science” or “technology” or “corporations” where it hurts, and to hell with the poor (who, let’s face it, are much happier anyway just being poor).

Mooney points to research showing that the trust in science has declined precipitously in recent years- but I am just wondering whether this itself can be partly explained by the clear liberal bias amongst scientists and scientific institutions- particularly when they are seen, rightly or wrongly, to promote left-wing policy responses to complex scientific issues like climate change. Of course, this is often translated into a suspicion of the basic science of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but there is no reason for the Right (or anyone) to have particular position on this but for the implications of left-wing policies being promoted as to remedy the situation: as I say, questioning CO2 as a greenhouse gas is not a core belief in and of itself for the religious right in the same way creationism is- it is purely a reaction to the policies of the Left.

I am not defending the misrepresentation of science by any side in this- merely pointing out that Mooney is misreading the context and mis-diagnosing the underlying causes.

What about Mooney’s contention that “wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences”? He claims that opposing the “science” of climate change will lead to a “global disaster that we are going to regret for all time- so how could it be bigger than that?” This seems to be an ideologically loaded statement that is a far remove from the “consensus science” on global warming, which can only give us different scenarios of how much warming based on different emissions trajectories, none of which there is any great certainty about as Mooney is implying. He seems to have slipped seamlessly from the science of CO2 as a warming gas and that humans are contributing to warming, to just the kind of alarmist rhetoric that Gore was guilty of.

The fact is, we don’t know what to do about global warming, or at least the solutions offered seem themselves to be split down political lines: on the one hand, more government regulation and the creation of powerful supra-national organisations which can usurp national governments’ ability to determine their own energy policy;
on the other hand, the potential for technological innovation to move much faster at reducing emissions than treaties have been able to, as we are seeing with the failure of Kyoto and the success of shale gas in the US.

A good example of this is the Keystone XL pipeline which has been a figure-head for “climate action” recently, but which has no real bearing on climate change regardless of whether you “deny” or “accept” the consensus scientific position.

This is what happens constantly in the climate debate which renders such discussions about who the the most anti-science fairly redundant: the science quickly merges into questionable policies or activist causes; question the policy, you become a “science denier”.

So it seems to me highly questionable- and certainly not scientific- for Mooney to suggest that “science denial” to the extent that it does exists on the Right can really be blamed for putative future global catastrophe; claiming certainty that the science is wrong for political reasons is of course damaging, but in this case we simply don’t know precisely what the correct course of action will be and we have to weigh it up against other considerations including the obvious need to keep the lights on and warm our homes.

It is possible then that thwarting certain liberal policies on climate could actually turn out to be the best thing to do- even if for entirely the wrong reasons.

Compared with the damage already done by opposing GE crops the damage done by questioning climate science, even in an extreme way, seems speculative at best, and in fact entirely unknown.

As Shermer points out, the left doesn’t seem to care what the actual solutions to global warming are anyway- which is why a strong contingent of the grassroots at least (whatever about Obama’s stance) is fundamentally opposed to both fracking and nuclear: they just want to impose “more government”, or, as I would prefer to say, they just want their solutions.

I have often argued, and still do, that the Left’s apparent pro-science stance on climate change is really just opportunistic, since they are so anti-science on some of the obvious and most promising solutions.

Mooney is correct that the Left and the Right are promiscuous with the science in different ways- but he just seems to be scoring political points in claiming the Left is worse- a rather obvious trap to fall into when claiming to understand the psychology of the opposition, but not your own.