Thursday, November 26, 2009

carbon numbers and mind games

Big whoop over Obama promising carbon cuts of 17%. After all, it sounds quite close to the EU's 20% and Japan's 25%, right?

Except the question is, 17% of what?

The EU, Japan, and pretty much everyone else uses 1990 level of emissions, the benchmark set by the Kyoto treaty. Obama's using 2005 as his starting point.

That figure of 17 percent crops up elsewhere. US emissions rose by around 17 percent from 1990 to 2005. In other words, by the standard of the cuts everyone else is talking about, the US is offering no cuts at all. And certainly, it is far, far short of what the science demands of us if we're to avoid runaway climate change.

Everyone's so desperate to have the Americans on board that we'll allow all kinds of twists and exceptions, just as at Kyoto we allowed them to introduce the Clean Development Mechanism, a massive carbon offsetting scheme that castrated the treaty.

Weirdly, as the evidence overwhelms and the situation becomes more urgent, the number of Americans who accept the fact of climate change is decreasing. (It could well be true elsewhere too, and if anyone's got links to any polls I'd love to see them).

This is possibly because, as George Monbiot suggests, there is a deep flaw in the human psyche in response to what are perceived as extreme and unalterable bad events. The first part of grief is denial.

could it be that the rapid growth of climate change denial over the past two years is actually a response to the hardening of scientific evidence? If so, how the hell do we confront it?

It could also be that, as American legislation has loomed larger, the deniers have upped their game. The survey Monbiot cites shows a sharp decrease in American belief in climate change in the last 18 months.

In that time, the number of people who say that there is no evidence that the earth is warming rose from 21 to 33 percent. A new Washington Post poll puts the rise from 18 percent to 26.

Note, this isn't about carbon or any causes of the warming, merely that warming has happened. A simple, established, verified fact. Yet at least a quarter of Americans flatly deny it, and that number is on the rise.

Mind you, 27% of Americans believe in an actual, living Satan.
[35% of American Christians believe in Satan, 78.5% of Americans are Christians]

I say again, this isn't some kind of 'aren't Americans stupid and bad' thing (Obama's non-cut is still ahead of China and Australia's increases), it's just that that's the country we've got figures for, and if anyone's got the equivalents for elsewhere please put a link in the Comments below.


The University of East Anglia's leaked emails have been a great trapdoor for deniers. The same people who were happy for the Great Global Warming Swindle to make up graphs, use discredited and disproven ideas, and have deniers claim academic credentials that don't exist are up in arms about three or four scientists apparently suppressing data.

Not that such action is excusable, quite the opposite. If anybody doing anything important for the public is betraying the trust in their position then they should be exposed. In that respect, for what wrongdoing they did uncover, the hackers did a public service. The whole point of objective science is to find what's actually happening, to move closer to the real truth.

But on the scale of things, it's nothing to what the deniers do. Indeed, the way deniers have exaggerated the meaning and significance of this stuff, pretending that small things debunk the whole field and applying a false understanding of the science, uses a far greater level of crooked thinking than anything in the emails.

In fact, the rubbish response of the UEA can be explained by their scientific outlook as opposed to the deniers tabloid approach, as George Marshall noted

in typical scientist fashion, it seeks to argue the data rationally. The UEA website states that “the selective publication of some stolen emails and other papers taken out of context is mischievous and cannot be considered a genuine attempt to engage with this issue in a responsible way”. Mischievous? Irresponsible? What naughty pixies.

Then the CRU director, Professor Phil Jones focuses on one of quotes: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline”

For the smear campaign it is only those key words trick and hide that count- the rest can be made into anything it wants. Jones ignores this and responds with a detailed technical explanation of the passage with reference to the original graphs. It’s like responding to someone calling you a bastard by showing them your birth certificate.

Marshall shows the notable similarities between the deniers email hack response and the American right's smear campaign against John Kerry when he was George Bush's presidential opponent in 2004, the whole Swift Boat Veterans For Truth thing.

Indeed, it's not that great a stretch to imagine the same people being behind the anti-Kerry and the anti-climate action smear campaigns. Here's Kerry absolutely dismembering a climate denier in a Senate hearing the other week.

It could well be that George Marshall's right, and the hack is part of an effort to emasculate the pending climate legislation. But with Obama's stated targets, they've not that much carbon reduction to worry about.


Jim Bliss said...

could it be that the rapid growth of climate change denial over the past two years is actually a response to the hardening of scientific evidence? If so, how the hell do we confront it?

It's an odd one this. Denial, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, is an extremely complex phenomenon. However, it's worth pointing out that it's considered one of the weakest of the ego-defences; a fact that should give us some hope.

I'm in the midst of writing an essay on what I'm calling the "Three Types of Climate Change Denial". But it'll probably end up in a book rather than as a blogpost. I'll let you know when that's ready (it's a series of essays on The Psychodynamics of Sustainability; real page turner, eh? I'm at the point where I think I've arrived at a fairly thorough diagnosis of the psychosis that modern civilisation is suffering from... finding a therapy likely work is the problem!)

Incidentally, I saw a headline today that claimed the Chinese have agreed to "a 45% cut" in their emissions.

Then the article revealed the headline as a lie. China has agreed to "a 45% cut in emissions growth by 2050".

I've not run the figures, but I suspect that by pledging to continue emissions growth until 2050 (albeit gradually reducing the pace of that growth), they essentially torpedo any chance to deal with global Climate Change.

Which isn't a statement of surrender, just an acknowledgement that current pledges and plans aren't even close to being enough. And there's little indication that things are likely to change in time.

merrick said...

the Chinese have agreed to "a 45% cut" in their emissions.

Then the article revealed the headline as a lie. China has agreed to "a 45% cut in emissions growth by 2050"

It's actually neither. It's an agreement to cut their 'carbon intensity', ie the amount of carbon per unit of economic activity.

As I said the other week, in a growth economy this means that your emissions per thing drop, but the amount of things you make rises, so your total emissions go up.

They've also picked Obama's 2005 starting point, giving them a headstart on their non-reduction.

But because China and the US are responsible for about 40% of global emissions, we'll give them any get-out clause they fancy as long as they sign up, even if that means what they sign up to is a piece of total shit.

Anonymous said...

Forget about Copenhagen, it will amount to nothing more than a series of photo-ops and shmoozing. Cap&Trade is the method of carbon emissions enforcement, and since the USA and China have no C&T there is no enforcement. It's time to look ahead to the next climate conference, this one is over.

Danny said...

Anyone getting depressed about Copenhagen (like Anonymous, above), should check out this great new article by Jess in the New Internationalist:

There's still hope...IF we ramp up our actions. In the same magazine, there's a handy summary of things we can do, whether or not we're going to Copenhagen itself:

Go go go...


PS I also had some shouting-at-the-computer fun at the way that "45% cut" from China was being reported. Gah.

Anonymous said...

I liked this article... but how about not using words like 'castrate' when you mean that someone had their power taken away? I'm sure this is lazy rather than deliberately sexist, but it does seem to imply that having power is related to having male genitals :-P

merrick said...


how about not using words like 'castrate' when you mean that someone had their power taken away?

I didn't mean to imply power was related to having testicles, it was, as you say, a lazy way of saying 'having potency removed'.

I think other metaphors could also have the problem of being specific, but if taken from imagery without such a social precedent of repression it'd still work.

Point taken, and I'll not do it again.