Yes, we need to talk about climate change again, and it’s probably necessary to start with a point I’ve made on this blog several times already: anthropogenic climate change is real and serious, and it’s being exploited by political and corporate interests to push a dubious agenda on the public. Many people these days don’t seem to be able to keep both these ideas in their heads at the same time. If you find it hard to do that, dear reader, I’m going to encourage you to make the effort, because a great deal of rhetoric is being deployed these days to make you forget that real problems can have fake solutions.
Imagine, to use the inevitable metaphor, that you’re on the proverbial ocean liner, which has just hit the proverbial iceberg. As you stand there on deck, someone grabs a bullhorn and announces that the real problem is that all the money in your pockets is weighing you down. He insists that if you’ll only hand all your money and other valuables to him, and let him row away from the doomed ship in one of the lifeboats, the people left on board just have to flap their arms vigorously and they’ll be able to fly away to safety in Newfoundland.
The problem you face is unquestionably real; go belowdecks and you can see the water rising. Does that mean that the solution being offered by the fellow with the bullhorn is the best option you have, or indeed that it will work at all? Of course not. The fellow with the bullhorn is betting that you’ll be sufficiently panicked at the thought of imminent drowning that you’ll accept a claim that, under other circumstances, you’d recognize as utter nonsense. It’s a common theme of history that people can be convinced to accept claims almost as silly as the one in my metaphor if they’ve been whipped up into a sufficient state of panic. Yes, I’m suggesting that that’s one of the things shaping the contemporary debate on climate change.
That doesn’t mean that anthropogenic climate change is unreal. One of the things we’ve learned over the last century or so of research into paleoclimatology is that the atmosphere is delicately balanced, and modest shifts in the mix of gases that compose it can cause significant temperature changes. The dust and gases from a single big volcanic eruption can jolt the global climate hard. That’s what happened in 1816, when the eruption of Mount Tambora caused a sharp decline in global temperature that led to crop failures all over the world’s temperate zones. (New England farmers for years afterwards called that year “Eighteen hundred and froze to death.”)
The same thing can happen on a larger scale when ecological shifts add or subtract large quantities of a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. That’s what happened when European diseases swept across the New World after the first transatlantic voyages, causing 95% fatality rates among North America’s native peoples and letting millions of acres formerly cultivated as farmland return to forest. The drawdown of carbon dioxide required by all that tree growth drove a three-century cold snap called the Little Ice Age, plunging most of the northern temperate zone into sharply colder conditions, with drastic impacts on politics and culture worldwide.
The Earth’s climate is delicately balanced, and plenty of factors can make it swing one way or the other. Scientists have known for years that the “solar constant”—the measure of light and heat we receive from the Sun—isn’t constant at all, but varies slightly according to intricate cycles; other cycles, many of them still poorly understood, push global temperatures one way or another. And into this delicately balanced system, since the industrial economy went into overdrive in the 19th century, we’ve dumped trillions of tons of carbon dioxide, and the rate at which we’ve been dumping it has soared steadily since the end of the Second World War.
A smart move? Er, no. Compared to the total volume of the atmosphere, trillions of tons may not seem like much, but it’s much bigger than the plume of dust and gases that made 1816 “the year without a summer,” and comparable to the changes that caused the Little Ice Age—just the other direction. Furthermore, we’re already getting blowback from it. Low-lying areas such as Miami Beach, well above tide level fifty years ago, now have seawater sloshing through the streets whenever an onshore wind boosts a high tide. Those of my US readers who garden know that the USDA planting zones have shifted significantly northward just in the last two decades. More worrisome, the annual cost of weather-related disasters has been climbing steadily for years; many factors feed into that growing burden on the global economy, but an increase in the severity of storms and weather phenomena generally does seem to be a significant part of it.
So the problem is real; the people who are worried about anthropogenic climate change have that much right. It’s the next steps that get complex. Those steps involve what’s coming, and what can and should be done about it—and in both these cases, we very quickly get into territory that’s rather reminiscent of the fellow with the bullhorn in my metaphor.
Listen to climate change activists talk about what will happen if something isn’t done right away and you’ll get to hear apocalyptic claims that rival anything Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins put into their schlocky Left Behind series—if you’re not familiar with this, it’s more or less the Fifty Shades of Grey of Protestant apocalypse porn. Mark Lynas’ lavishly marketed 2008 climate-change opus Six Degrees, though a bit dated at this point, is typical of the genre in its gaudy portrayal of a world tucked under the broiler, as well as its proselytizing tone—again, the parallels with Left Behind are hard to miss. There’s plenty more of this sort of thing being splashed around by the corporate mass media these days.
The difficulty, in turn, is the same one encountered again and again by apocalypse-mongers: the universe keeps on failing to live up to their predictions. Do you, dear reader, remember the loud pronouncements not much more than a decade ago that the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free by 2013? I certainly do. That’s far from the only prediction of imminent climate doom over the last quarter century that’s fallen flat on its nose. People on the denialist end of the debate have taken to circulating long lists of loudly ballyhooed climate predictions from the past that turned out to be dead wrong, as a way of pointing out that the supposedly authoritative pronouncements of respected climate scientists are tolerably often no more accurate than a flipped coin.
The difficulty, here as so often, lies in the complex relationship between scientific knowledge and the collective discourse of our time. In those disciplines that haven’t been wholly corrupted by money and fame, scientists tend to be highly cautious when talking to other scientists; they hedge every statement with caveats, because they know perfectly well that the people who are reading those statements have the necessary background to pick them apart, find the flaws, and send a letter to this or that scientific journal exposing your mistakes for all your colleagues to see. That’s a key part of the scientific method, and when it stops happening—when criticism within a discipline is no longer permitted and a rigidly defined consensus governs what you can and cannot disagree with—you know the discipline has sold out.
On the other hand, if you approach a discussion outside of the scientific community with all those caveats, and the subject is anything even remotely controversial, you can expect to have the caveats shoved down your throat by your opponents, who are used to a different mode of discourse. Scientists who find their feet in the public sphere thus quickly stop offering the caveats, and start using the same rhetorical tricks as their opponents. Unfortunately one of the most common of those tricks involves taking your argument further than the evidence will go, and making whatever claims you think you can get away with.
The late Carl Sagan was a notable example of this latter habit. Those of my readers who recall his career will remember that he coauthored the paper that introduced the concept of “nuclear winter” to public discussion. (For those who don’t recall this, it’s the theory that nuclear war would cause sudden global cooling along the same lines, and for the same reasons, as the Tambora eruption in 1816.) That original paper—the TTAPS paper, as it was called after the initials of its authors—was a solid scientific study that showed that there was a serious risk of global cooling lasting for many weeks, and gave facts and figures to support that argument.
Sagan wrote two more pieces on nuclear winter, though, which were not intended for his fellow scientists. He contributed to a 1984 volume, The Cold and the Dark, which was aimed at an audience of scientifically literate laypeople. He also wrote a 1983 article for Parade Magazine—a weekly that at the time was inserted into Sunday newspapers around the country—which was thus aimed at the scientifically illiterate public. Compare those with the original study and a curious trend emerges. Where the TTAPS study predicted a period of cooling lasting for weeks, his piece in The Cold and the Dark replaced that with months, and the Parade article stretched it out to years. Sagan was involved in antinuclear activism, and apparently couldn’t resist the temptation to play fast and loose with facts to prop up the case he was trying to make.
The difficulty, of course, is that politicians can get away with that but scientists can’t. Politicians get their authority because either they hold public office, or there’s a real chance they will hold public office sometime soon. We don’t listen to them because they’re right, since they so rarely are; we listen to them because they’re powerful. Scientists, on the other hand, get their authority because they’re supposed to know more about the way things work than the rest of us. When they start acting like politicians, people notice, and stop paying attention to what they say.
If you want to see just how far climate scientists have gotten into what we might as well call the Sagan syndrome, by the way, ask them about the global cooling scare of the 1970s. Odds are the immediate response you’ll get is an insistence that it never happened. If you present them with the titles and authors of books written during that period that treated global cooling as a reality—those aren’t hard to find—they’ll typically backpedal and insist that well, maybe so, but scientists didn’t support the global cooling scare. If you demonstrate that respected scientists did in fact do so—and again, this isn’t hard to do—they’ll either get angry and start shouting or insist that, well, maybe so, but it wasn’t the consensus among climate experts.
Don’t tell them about the 1972 climate conference at Brown University here in Rhode Island, which brought together 42 of the world’s top climate scientists, and ended up sending a letter to President Nixon and putting papers in Science and Quaternary Studies warning of imminent global cooling and a possible new ice age. If you do that, I promise that they’ll get angry and start shouting, because you’ve caught them behaving like politicians rather than scientists, and they’ll know it. You can get the same effect by asking dieticians why we should believe what they say about cholesterol now, when we all know perfectly well that in another ten years they’ll have changed their minds again. Laypeople aren’t supposed to question scientists like that—at least that’s what scientists like to tell themselves.
In point of fact, we don’t know what’s going to happen if we keep on dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Linear models—the sort that predicted an ice-free Arctic Ocean by 2013—clearly don’t work, and anyone familiar with complex dynamic systems knew in advance that they wouldn’t work: in a system of any complexity, linear change in one variable doesn’t produce linear change in other variables, it sets off unpredictable feedback loops and turbulence that makes slow background shifts difficult to track. That’s what we’re seeing with the climate: increased unpredictability and turbulence over a background of slow change. The Arctic Ocean will almost certainly end up ice-free one of these days, but it may be a while, and Florida’s going to be underwater eventually but it may take a couple of centuries for that to happen. That’s how climate change happens in the real world.
So the shrill insistence that we’re facing a climate emergency and we have to take drastic action right now is a political claim, not a scientific one. The drastic action—well, that’s another matter. The open secret of climate change activism is that the solutions being offered by activists have uncomfortable similarities to the claims of the fellow with the bullhorn in my metaphor. Decades of heavily subsidized growth in solar and wind power haven’t dented the steady increase in carbon dioxide emissions, for example—not least because solar and wind power technologies depend on vast fossil fuel inputs for their manufacture, installation, maintenance, and disposal—so it’s disingenuous to claim that putting even more money into solar and wind power will do the job. As for vegan diets, bans on plastic straws, and the like, those are virtue signaling covering up an unwillingness to accept meaningful change.
For two decades now, in fact, the people who are loudest in their insistence that something has to be done about climate change have been the same people whose lifestyles disproportionately cause climate change. If you commute all alone in an SUV, fly to Mazatlan or Spain every year for a vacation, and keep up the other habits of absurd extravagance that go with an upper middle class lifestyle in the industrial world these days, even if you eat a vegan diet and never touch a plastic straw, your carbon footprint exceeds that of ten deplorables in West Virginia or a hundred ordinary people in Indonesia or Uruguay. If you’re one of the rich and famous at the forefront of climate change activism, your carbon footprint exceeds that of a Third World town.
So there’s an obvious way for the people who are most concerned about climate change to take drastic action concerning it: they can change their own lifestyles. One ingenious blogger has launched a campaign to encourage exactly that under the hashtag #BanPrivateJets. It’s a great plan and it would do a lot of good; private jets owned by the rich and famous dump millions of pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, and all of that could be done away with easily by banning private jets; what’s more, the people who would be inconvenienced by the ban are the wealthiest among us, and thus have ample resources to adapt. So can we expect celebrity activists to voluntarily ground their jets anytime soon? I don’t recommend holding your breath.
Au contraire, the behavior of climate change activists, and of the corporate media and multinational business interests that fund and promote them so lavishly, makes sense only if you assume that they want everyone else to stop using fossil fuels so that they don’t have to. The shrill claims of impending doom, the insistence that we’re in a climate emergency and everyone has to accept drastic restrictions that climate change activists show no trace of willingness to embrace in their own lives, make perfect sense if the game plan is to buffalo most of the people in the world’s industrial countries into accepting a sharply lower standard of living “for the planet,” so that the upper twenty per cent or so can maintain their current lifestyles unchanged.
If that’s what’s going on, though, it’s a losing game. The project of splitting industrial societies into an affluent minority and an impoverished majority by offshoring jobs and flooding the labor market with immigrants has already generated a furious populist backlash so forceful that in the US and Great Britain alike, globalist parties are desperately scrambling to avoid giving voters the chance to choose between their policies and those of the populist insurgency. From science through politics to the corporate media, the spokescritters of the status quo have been caught shoveling smoke so often that the prestige they once had is a thing of the past—and no, it won’t work to do as some privileged pundits are doing these days and insist, plaintively or angrily as the case may be, that the rabble ought to stop asking unwelcome questions and believe blindly in whatever their supposed betters tell them. Those days are over.
Does this mean that we’re simply going to have to deal with whatever anthropogenic climate change throws our way? To some extent that can’t be avoided at this point, as a lot of change has already been baked into the cake; what’s more, since climate change activists clearly aren’t willing to change their own lifestyles for the sake of the planet, nobody else is going to agree to do so either. (“Do as I say, not as I do” has a very poor track record as a political strategy.) That said, there are things that can be done, if people are willing to think about anthropogenic climate change as an ecological problem, not as an excuse for pseudoreligious apocalyptic fantasies, political grandstanding, or attempts to shore up the crumbling power of a waning managerial elite. As an ecological problem, it has solutions, and the most cost-effective and readily deployable of those come from the field of appropriate technology.
I’m thinking here among many other things about a recent discovery at an Australian university. Did you know that cows like to eat seaweed? Ranchers who raise cows near the sea routinely find their herds on the beach or even belly deep in the surf, munching seaweed. It so happens that one variety of seaweed has the effect of nearly eliminating the production of methane in cows’ digestive tracts. Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and has been coming out of the bellies of ruminants in vast quantities since long before humans arrived—think of the herds of buffalo that used to roam the North American plains, or the herds of aurochs (the wild ancestors of cattle) that once thronged the steppes of western Eurasia.
Could we fine-tune emissions by giving cows seaweed to eat, so that excess carbon dioxide (which benefits plant growth, by the way) is balanced out by decreased methane? It’s worth trying—and the Australian scientists are working on methods to raise the seaweed in question so it can become a common additive to cattle feed. That would have to be phased in gradually so the results didn’t swing the climate the other way, but that could easily be managed, given a less hysterical approach to climate change than the one being pushed by activists these days.
That’s only one example of the kind of appropriate technology that we could use to cushion our species’ impact on the biosphere. Replacing wood with hemp as a feedstock for paper and other uses could be another—the faster a plant grows, the more carbon dioxide it sucks out of the air, and hemp grows much faster than commercial softwoods. For that matter, large-scale tree planting is a viable strategy, deliberately copying the events that led to the Little Ice Age to cool things off a bit, especially if the trees are left to mature rather than being cut down early in their life cycle—again, we’ve got hemp as a replacement. Combine these and other bits of appropriate tech with the phasing out of a few absurd extravagances like private jets, and we can bring climate change to a halt, or at least slow it down to a pace that we and other species can handle.
This requires, of course, a sharply different attitude toward relations between humanity and nature than the one that’s guided environmentalism for the last forty years or so. We’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.
In other news, fans of my epic fantasy series with tentacles The Weird of Hali will want to know that the final volume in the series—The Weird of Hali: Arkham—is now available for purchase in print and ebook editions. The conflict between the old gods of Earth and a cult of mad rationalists who want to turn the rhetoric about Man’s Conquest of Nature into a bloodstained reality has reached its culmination, and Owen Merrill and Jenny Chaudronnier are once again in the middle of it all, seeking the lost incantations that alone can free Great Cthulhu from imprisonment and save life on Earth. Interested? You can order a copy here.