I have been watching with some dismay the comments on Facebook and other places about the New York Times hiring Bret Stephens as a columnist. Ascribed to being an extreme climate change denier, parallels have been drawn with Holocaust deniers and suggestions made that the Times should be boycotted until they release him.
Interesting… he is accused of heresy for doubting the predictions of hard green religion and the demands for making specific changes in power generation and other things to save the planet. The science is fine but maybe we should not be so confident about our models and think about this a bit more. Guess this is what passes for non-belief in these hyper-partisan days. Infant damnation or atheism with no middle ground.
I will confess to similar leanings that have grown with the shrillness of the critics. I justify my thoughts with a comparison to political and economic forecasting — and the economic behavior of human society with its billions of interacting parts is quite simple compared with the climate.
Politicians of all stripes routinely tout specific programs to restore prosperity and end various flavors of unfairness. And their allies in business argue for policies to favor their industries with a heavy hand for similar reasons. Mostly these fail, often spectacularly. Trickle down, a favorite of the current White House occupant, has been proffered a number of times — cut taxes on the rich, the job creators and prosperity will flow down over everyone. So far not so much it seems — the latest was Kansas, where they had to dip into emergency funds to keep the state afloat. But the results are ignored… the real benefits achieved, if any, go to a more restricted group. So why do we believe them when the evidence is right in our faces?
So here in Ontario we have a Green Energy Act that removes planning control from local governments and substitutes the will of a highly politicized government power system. Rural areas are being covered with enormous wind farms against the will of most of the residents and in violation of various treaties and so forth. And harm… well, if the research was not done in Ontario it just doesn’t apply. And when locals fight it is against the government and the ‘renewables’ industry. And with the project across the street, the developer admitted that even though the costs are more than double any other project it is so profitable they have to do it. Curious… Ontario has a huge surplus of wind power being sold at a loss to surrounding areas, and soaring power costs — where is the money going?
Similarly, on a planetary scale, there is urgency in saving the planet by deploying more and more solar panels, wind farms and so forth. And making other changes to decarbonize the economy by industrial taxes and mandating expensive technology. But transportation, which accounts for almost 40% of greenhouse gasses in Ontario, continues to be the realm of cars, trucks and airplanes. Trains, which produce a tiny amount of GHG per passenger mile in comparison, continue to be under attack. And regional bus service has been shut down in a number of places. So if you don’t drive and cannot afford to fly you are going no place. And logging continues everywhere — although in North America there is replanting, unlike places where the forests are cut for agriculture, beef or palm oil.
The science is clear — hard to argue with years of rising temperatures, rising sea levels and melting ice. But some do… Where it gets trickier is in the efficacy of the models — and this is where things diverge. Problem as I see it is that compared with something simple like the planetary economy, the climate is a non-trivial system. We have human activity to be sure — coal, oil, gas and forests all cheerfully burned to power our civilization. And in some quarters nowhere near fast enough. But there are other factors — and more are discovered every week. We have the heat flow from the sun, the impact of large scale magnetic fields on all sorts of interactions, thermal properties of the earth and seas. And this is to say nothing of the solid gas hydrates on the ocean shelves, the gasses coming from permafrost organics that have been frozen for millennia. And the venting from millions of beef cattle who are very gassy on the diets we feed them to speed the trip to the table.
The problem with models is that at best we have simplifying assumptions about the factors we know about, the actual interactions may be a bit more complicated — and likely non-linear in ways we cannot even imagine. Then there are the factors we suspect, the known unknowns. And then there are the unknown unknowns… So while the models may be descriptive, I suspect they have a long way to go before becoming prescriptive. So airconditioning the arctic to refreeze the ice cap (and where does the rejected heat go one might ask?) or putting a giant parasol in space — if we could do it might have other effects than the one predicted by the proponents. But it is increasingly obvious that it is heretical to suggest otherwise.
Back to the columnist… the stuff I have read of his seems to be nothing more extreme than saying trust the science but the predictions not so much. A sense of modesty is called for about what we know and, probably more important, what we don’t. And what we can do to effect long term change. Not sure this is climate change denial in my book — but some seem to think so. And are suggesting that perhaps burning at the stake for heresy should be revisited.
There is one other factor that suggests caution. There are places right now that are being harmed by climate change — island chains vanishing under the sea, coastal erosion and flooding here in North America. And arctic communities under threat because the ice is melting and the permafrost is thawing — so their homes are vanishing. Curiously, we have no money to help any of these folks. But I guess if we don’t like them probably plenty of money to bomb them…
And changing the entire basis of our collective societies from burning stuff to something less destructive is not an overnight task, nor a free one. (Assuming there was the political will to do that, either.) Might be easier if we were not so eager to make more people and worsen the problem — but that is another rant. And if the climate modelers are right, even if we stopped everything right now it will take centuries before things change.
So I suspect that in reality the targets are where there is an easy buck to be made, like here in Ontario, and the sincere believers are being encouraged to think that these projects are the solutions to a planetary catastrophe and no one must stand in the way. Any one who disagrees is a heretic and must be burned. Of course that adds to greenhouse gasses but who cares, anyhow… not when there is money to be made. And in the end, the climate will do what it wants and we will adapt to it or perish.