Last week’s New York Times Magazine contained a very interesting profile of Freeman Dyson. Dyson is a famed physicist, anti-war and anti-nuclear activist, and Obama supporter. He is also a global warming skeptic.
Actually, ‘global warming skeptic’ is a bit of a misnomer. From from I could glean from the article, Dyson agrees that the Earth is getting warmer and that human activity is probably responsible. His disagreements with the “consensus” touted by Al Gore et al. focus on what should be done about it. According to Dyson, the potential negative consequences of global warming have been overblown, and are partly offset by some positive consequences that a warmer earth might bring. In addition, what negative consequences global warming does bring can be ameliorated much lower cost than what would be required to stop climate change simply by controlling emissions (Dyson’s own preferred solution is to use massive carbon sequestration, possibly with plants genetically engineered to eat up large amounts of carbon).
Here is a taste: Continue reading
So last night was “Earth Hour,” an attempt to avoid the utter destruction of the planet by having everyone turn off their lights for an hour. Attempts to quantify the actual impact of this action on energy use range from nil to negative, but then I suspect that this isn’t really the point. The whole affair reminds me of the following bit from Tim Harford’s book The Undercover Economist:
“How did you travel here today?”
“I’m sorry?” I’m puzzled. Here I am, going to a panel discussion organized by an environmental charity, and a very earnest young member of staff is grilling me before I even get past the door of the lecture hall.
“How did you travel here today? We need to know for our carbon offset program.”
“What’s a carbon offset program?”
“We want all our meetings to be carbon-neutral. We ask everyone who attends to let us know how far they came and on what mode of transportation, and then we work out how much carbon dioxide was emitted and plant trees to offset the emissions.”
“I see. In that case, I came here in an anthracite powered steamship from Australia.” Continue reading
The hydroelectric dam, a low wall of concrete slicing across an old farming valley, is supposed to help a power company in distant Germany contribute to saving the climate — while putting lucrative “carbon credits” into the pockets of Chinese developers.
But in the end the new Xiaoxi dam may do nothing to lower global-warming emissions as advertised. And many of the 7,500 people displaced by the project still seethe over losing their homes and farmland.
The dam will shortchange German consumers, Chinese villagers and the climate itself, if critics are right. And Xiaoxi is not alone.
Similar stories are repeated across China and elsewhere around the world, as hundreds of hydro projects line up for carbon credits, at a potential cost of billions to Europeans, Japanese and soon perhaps Americans, in a trading system a new U.S. government review concludes has “uncertain effects” on greenhouse-gas emissions.
In discussions about about high gas prices, global warming, etc., it is not uncommon to hear someone say that what we really need to put more money into public transit, as this will help energy conservation. But as the above chart shows, more public transit may not actually save us all that much energy. If, that is, it saves us any at all.
I’ve noted previously the thin green line that separates parody from reality, but I have to say that the folks behind this website have taken unintentional self-parody to an all new level. The site, which appears to be associated with the Australian Broadcasting Company, asks kids to calculate their family’s level of greenhouse gas emissions.* Based on these answers, the site calculates “when you should die” in order to not use “more than your fair share of Earth’s resources.” If you put in the “average” answers for all of the questions, you will be told you should die at age 9.
The use of these sorts of scare tactics is hardly new. When I was in the Boy Scouts, we had a weekend retreat one time that was devoted to environmental issues. This guy spoke to us about how he and all the other adults were using up all the earth’s resources, and that by the time we got to be adults there would be nothing left, but he and his adult friends didn’t care, because they’d all be dead by then anyway. Bwahahaha! Needless to say I was suitably freaked out by this. Also needless to say, I managed to reach adulthood while somehow avoiding the imminent environmental apocalypse of which he spoke. Since then I’ve always been filled with a profound sense of skepticism when I hear people talk about environmental doom and gloom (a skepticism reinforced by the fact that the guy who spoke to my Boy Scout troop was hardly unique). Still, it’s amazing that folks would be quite to baldfaced about it as they are at this site.
(HT: Coyote Blog)
*While the quiz does ask questions about driving, food, flying, etc., it turns out that one’s death date is mainly determined by how much money one spends. If you spend more than a subsistence level on “ordinary stuff” you are doomed to an early death, though you can prolong your life somewhat by spending money on “stuff that’s better for the environment” and “ethical investments.”
We all know that Barack Obama is in favor of change. Less clear has been exactly what it is he wishes to change. For most of the campaign the assumption has been that Obama wants to change government. He speaks often, for example, of the need to take power away from the “special interests” (which is no doubt why he supported the ethanol mandate). But based on some of his statements, it seems his ambitions may run higher than that. Perhaps Obama wishes not merely to change government, but to change us:
Pitching his message to Oregon’s environmentally-conscious voters, Obama called on the United States to “lead by example” on global warming, and develop new technologies at home which could be exported to developing countries.
“We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times … and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK,” Obama said.
“That’s not leadership. That’s not going to happen,” he added.
I might humbly suggest that getting other countries’ OK as to where we set our thermostats isn’t leadership either (except, perhaps, in a globalized version of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin‘s use of the term).
Obama’s talk of “new technologies” and controlling thermostats put me in mind of a story from a couple of months ago, when the California legislature was considering installing devices in people’s homes that would allow the government to set people’s thermostats for them: Continue reading
Sometimes is seems like every day the line between parody and reality gets a little harder to draw. To wit.:
A few years ago the Swiss added to their national constitution a provision requiring “account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms.” No one knew exactly what it meant, so they asked the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to figure it out. The resulting report, “The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants,” is enough to short circuit the brain.
A “clear majority” of the panel adopted what it called a “biocentric” moral view, meaning that “living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive.” Thus, the panel determined that we cannot claim “absolute ownership” over plants and, moreover, that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” This means that “we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily.” Continue reading
Over at Vox-Nova, my co-blogger Policraticus has pointed to some of the many statements made by the Popes in recent years on the importance of protecting the environment. It’s only fair, however, to note just how much technological progress and the free economy have led to a cleaner, healthier, and all around more pleasant environment. As Don Boudreaux has put it:
[S]mallpox, dysentery, and malaria – once common threats to humankind – are today totally conquered in the industrial world. (Smallpox is no longer a threat even in the poorest parts of the world.) Antibiotics regularly protect us from many infections that routinely killed our ancestors.
Before refrigeration, people ran enormous risks of ingesting deadly bacteria whenever they ate meat or dairy products. Refrigeration has dramatically reduced the bacteria pollution that constantly haunted our pre-twentieth-century forebears.
We wear clean clothes; our ancestors wore foul clothes. Pre-industrial humans had no washers, dryers, or sanitary laundry detergent. Clothes were worn day after day without being washed. And when they were washed, the detergent was often made of urine. Continue reading
It looks like I may have been on the cutting edge on this one:
Hailed until only months ago as a silver bullet in the fight against global warming, biofuels are now accused of snatching food out of the mouths of the poor.
Billions have been poured into developing sugar- and grain-based ethanol and biodiesel to help wean rich economies from their addiction to carbon-belching fossil fuels, the overwhelming source of man-made global warming.
But as soaring prices for staples bring more of the planet’s most vulnerable people face-to-face with starvation, the image of biofuels has suddenly changed from climate saviour to a horribly misguided experiment.
On Friday, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said biofuels “posed a real moral problem” and called for a moratorium on using food crops to power cars, trucks and buses.
The vital problem of global warming “has to be balanced with the fact that there are people who are going to starve to death,” said Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
“Producing biofuels is a crime against humanity,” the UN’s special rapporteur for the right to food, Jean Ziegler of Switzerland, said earlier.
I wonder if this:
Hungry Haitians stormed the presidential palace Tuesday to demand the resignation of President Rene Preval over soaring food prices and U.N. peacekeepers battled rioters with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Food prices, which have risen 40 percent on average since mid-2007, are causing unrest around the world. But nowhere do they pose a greater threat to democracy than in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries where in the best of times most people struggle to fill their bellies.
is related to this:
The recent rise in corn prices–almost 70 percent in the past six months–caused by the increased demand for ethanol biofuel has come much sooner than many agriculture economists had expected.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this year the country is going to use 18 to 20 percent of its total corn crop for the production of ethanol, and by next year that will jump to 25 percent. And that increase, says Marshall Martin, an agriculture economist at Purdue University, “is the main driver behind the price increase for corn.”
The jump in corn prices is already affecting the cost of food. The most notable example: in Mexico, which gets much of its corn from the United States, the price of corn tortillas has doubled in the past year, according to press reports, setting off large protest marches in Mexico City. It’s almost certain that most of the rise in corn prices is due to the U.S. ethanol policy, says David Victor, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University.
“All things that use corn are going to have higher prices and higher cost, to some extent, that will be passed on to consumers,” says Wally Tyner, professor of agriculture economics at Purdue University. The impact of this is being felt first in animal feed, particularly poultry and pork. Poultry feed is about two-thirds corn; as a result, the cost to produce poultry–both meat and eggs–has already risen about 15 percent due to corn prices, says Tyner.
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