Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Don't Look Now, Because You're Completely Blind

This editorial stunningly took its place at the very top of the environmental news on Google yesterday. It is that lovely sort of commentary that infuriates me with every single paragraph of opinionated bullshit and abject disregard for reason. I can’t even write a satisfying general rebuttal to the entire piece, so I’ll quote it and go point by point.

I read the article because the title caught my attention: “Don’t Look Now, But CO2 Output is Falling.” And although I knew the phrase “don’t look now” spelled trouble, as an environmentalist I thought, “Boy, that’s a rare bit of good news. It sounds like we’re making progress.” Of course, the writer from Investor’s Business Daily couldn’t quite see it that way. Instead, he takes it to mean “The list of reasons carbon dioxide emissions should not be regulated continues to grow.”

That’s his second sentence, and I’m already thrown. Is he saying that there should be no regulation because preliminary efforts at regulation may have already been effective? Once again, I’m reminded of Glenn Beck saying we don’t need food safety regulations because our food is safe. And if you don’t see what’s wrong with that kind of logic, I don’t think I have any hope of reaching you.

But maybe a response to the author’s data will make a difference to somebody. He says that “emissions of what are considered the six main greenhouses gases fell 6.1% in 2009 from their 2008 levels,” which is great, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here. The regulations that the author considers unnecessary are on carbon emissions, and he fails to mention what part of that 6.1% is comprised of the other five gases, which fade from the atmosphere over time, and what portion is carbon dioxide, which does not. Citing the collective figure to make an argument regarding only one of its component parts is a way to deliberately and artificially inflate the validity of one’s point, and it’s like saying thalidomide is safe because sedatives are not generally linked to birth defects. Focus on the data that’s relevant to what's being discussed.

Now, to his credit, the lion’s share of the decrease does indeed belong to carbon emissions, and the percent decrease of CO2 itself was more like 7%. You’d think he would have taken the time to calculate that and use it to give greater weight to his argument, but the lovely thing about his faulty reasoning is that the argument is invalid either way. After all, what’s really at issue here is not whether the volume of carbon emissions has gone up or down in the past year, but whether a decrease in those emissions is good, bad, or neutral, and thus whether we should seek to extend any decrease into future years.

Obviously, the editorial says no, we shouldn’t. It almost concedes, however, that pointing out the decrease between 2008 and 2009 is practically irrelevant, before going on to disregard the significance of the broader data:

“Yes, levels increased by 7.3% from 1990 to 2009. But the average annual rate of increase since 1990 has been a mere 0.4%, a data point that doesn't seem worthy of the high-intensity hysteria that's been spread by the alarmists.”

Yeah, that’s a good point. 0.4% doesn’t seem like something to worry about. Also, the moon doesn’t seem that big when you’re just looking up at the sky, and a tiny blue-ringed octopus doesn’t seem particularly threatening until it delivers a dose of one of the most powerful neurotoxins on the planet. Now, I’m not trying to sound like an “alarmist” with that comparison, and I’m not trying to say that carbon dioxide poses such an immediate, personal threat. I’m actually trying to sound very reasonable, in that I’m simply pointing out that it’s not exactly scientific to dismiss a data point because the small number it references doesn’t feel like something you should be worried about. 1.5 parts per million also doesn’t seem like something to be worried about, and that’s just another way of identifying the average annual increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Neither of those numbers sound very big, but the reality of their impact isn’t something to thumb your nose at just on account of the entire expanse of the Earth’s atmosphere being kind of a big place.

1.5 parts per million might still come across as kind of trifling if I put it into different context by setting it against the current atmospheric carbon dioxide totals of roughly 385 parts per million. 385 seems pretty small when you’re comparing it to a million, but the fact is that it doesn’t fucking matter what it feels like, that’s enough carbon dioxide to play its substantial role in the greenhouse effect, which has historically kept our planet at livable temperatures. What share of the Earth’s entire atmosphere would carbon dioxide have to take up for it to seem like a significant number to the author? One percent? A quarter? Half? I don’t suppose it would matter that scientists have pointed out that an increase to as little as 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide would cause adverse effects to the climate that are irreversible. In fact, I don’t suppose that anything scientists say would have an impact on those with a vested interest in never regulating atmospheric pollution. But if you do take the data seriously, the small difference between 385 and 450 indicates that that 0.4% annual increase suddenly means that we could reach that critical volume in one human lifetime.

Or if that thread of logic isn’t sufficiently effective for you, I could take the original author’s route and point you to figures that seem more serious. Because even with that 7% decrease, in 2009 the U.S. alone still poured five and a half billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Does that seem any more like something you should be concerned about? If you’re anything like the writer of the editorial, then of course not, because it’s not a serious problem. And why not? Because you say so, that’s why not.

“In the same year greenhouse emissions fell, the EPA, which should be an acronym for Eternally Panicked and Alarmed, determined ‘that climate change caused by emissions of greenhouse gases threatens the public's health and the environment.’ Regarding politics to be more important than science, it has taken it upon itself to regulate carbon dioxide as a ‘pollutant.’”

What the fuck is this guy talking about? I say to him: You’re the one making this a political issue, not the EPA. How the hell does determining that something is a threat to health and the environment and resolving to do something about it constitute a political act? The idea that they regard politics as more important than science is not even remotely substantiated, it’s just boldly asserted. But either you think that protecting health and the environment is some kind of shady political dealing, or you think they’re lying when they say that’s what they’re doing. Well, which is it, and how do you justify the claim? After all, as I’ve alluded to above, it is specifically science, and not politics, that considers carbon dioxide emissions to kind of be a problem worth addressing.

The author has an opinion about what EPA should stand for, but does he even realize what it actually does stand for? Their entire reason for existing is to take measures to protect the environment. They’re not a group of political propagandists, but rather an agency that puts out scientific studies and makes determinations on the basis of environmental science as to how best to prevent rapid ecological degradation. That’s their sole purpose, and while I guess you could consider environmental protection to be a political act, if you do so, you’d better be ready to bear the burden of proof as to how that protection constitutes disregarding science.

"'Climate change is happening now,' the EPA has claimed, 'and humans are contributing to it.'

"This is the same EPA, it was revealed in congressional testimony last week, that ignores the negative impact its regulations have on jobs, even though an executive order requires EPA rule makers to protect job creation. And it's the same EPA that plans to regulate CO2 without congressional approval."

And now I have to make my prior point all over again. That’s interesting that the EPA has to take jobs into account, and indeed it’s admirable. It’s admirable because there needs to be balance between two important national policy considerations, which, unfortunately must sometimes come into conflict. But frankly, I can understand why the EPA wouldn’t perform full economic analyses on their proposed rules, because it’s not their fucking job. Their purpose is the protection of the environment, not the job market, and while it’s a tragedy if their efforts outright ignore seriously adverse economic impacts, it’s also not right to say that an agency has to put an entirely separate consideration completely ahead of the precise thing that that agency is designed to do. The author implies above that declaring anthropogenic climate change to be real and ignoring job creation are somehow contradictory. But even if the EPA leadership went on record as saying "We want everyone to be unemployed," that wouldn't say anything about the earnestness or correctness of their environmental policies.

The tough thing about politics, and a substantial reason why I wouldn’t want to be a politician, is that you have to develop a sense of “acceptable loss.” While I vehemently disagreed with a great many policies and actions of the second Bush administration, I gave him at least the minimal benefit of the doubt. I thought school vouchers took desperately needed money away from public schools, and that the Iraq war sacrificed precious lives for an unclear goal, but I recognize that he probably thought those were acceptable losses in light of his broader aims, and that he probably wasn’t just trying to fuck people over because he damn well felt like it.

I’m very optimistic that we can solve all of our social, environmental, and economic problems. Job creation is important. Hell, I know that first hand. I have a degree from NYU, and I spent my first three post-graduate years without a full time job, then finally got one that paid barely over minimum wage for profoundly degrading work. I know the pain of joblessness. I’ll bet I know it a hell of a lot better than someone who writes for Investor’s Business Daily. You see, the thing that pisses me off about people who cry foul about “job-killing proposals” is that they’re generally not the sort of people who need jobs to be available for their own economic survival, but rather people who need more jobs to exist because it improves their bottom line. And the rabid anti-environmentalists like the writer of this editorial don’t simply prize job creation more highly than ecological stability, they campaign against environmentalist proposals because they might stand to lose money if they go forward. These people would just as soon turn their backs on American workers if it helped to indulge their own greed. A better economy is, for them, not a solution to social problems, but a way of expanding their own savings accounts. Solving problems is not much of a concern, but solving exactly one problem just happens to serve their interests.

For those of us interested in trying to make things better across the board, we have to recognize that it’s everyone’s responsibility to effect positive change, to make short-term sacrifices, and to compensate for the drawbacks of necessary changes. Towards that end, there is a certain extent to which the loss of capital and a short-term reduction in job growth may result from regulations that are necessary to the long-term health of the planet. But with input and investment from individuals, private businesses, and government agencies other than the EPA, we can bring economic interests into line with the changes that environmental experts and climate scientists have determined to be necessary. We can create jobs related to green technologies and renewable resources, but we’ve got to be willing to make a substantial effort towards that transition. Nobody’s saying it’s easy, or that one side will be one hundred percent politically satisfied with the balance struck between competing interests. But what I’m saying unequivocally is that the reasonable approach to the nation’s rather complex concerns is not to say, basically, “fuck the environment.”

“If the agency is so keen on regulating carbon dioxide, maybe it should turn its attention to China, which has surpassed the U.S. in CO2 emissions. While U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased 7.3% from 1990 to 2009, China's carbon dioxide emissions have soared roughly 175% since 1999. If CO2 emissions must be cut, then China is where the cutting has to start.”

Are you kidding me? Yeah, maybe the EPA should turn its attention to China, or maybe that, also, is not their fucking job. Nor is it even legally possible for them to have any effect there without somehow raising an army and invading the country. What the hell does this guy think the EPA is? Their scope does not extend beyond our borders. If you think China needs to cut its emissions, which obviously it does, that issue is separate from the issue of creating and enforcing our own domestic regulations, and it is the responsibility of diplomats and bodies that are actually international in scope.

I have no idea where the author gets his figure of 175% for China’s emissions increase, and I suspect that it’s pure speculation, since Reuters and the Congressional Research Service both indicate that the actual emission figures for China are difficult to determine, and that it is only widely believed, in absence of official data, that China has surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest emitter. Even with a 175% increase for one, it’s a close match between the two nations. After all, it’s worth noting that China was a largely agrarian nation well into the twentieth century, so along with our head start on industrialization, the US had a head start on pollution. But it’s really a moot point which of us is in the lead when the two nations together account for 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Still, you think China needs to cut its emissions before we do? Well, if you’ll refer to the above two links, you’ll see that they are very much on record as being committed to doing so. Does that make it our turn?

But then, this shouldn’t really be a turn-based game. And it belies the author’s sense of responsibility that he is so ready to say, “We don’t have to do anything, because there’s someone worse than us.” That is exactly the sort of reasoning that makes the world a worse place. No positive change takes place when everyone who’s in a position to make that change stands around pointing fingers at one another and waiting for someone else to be the first one to act.

“If not, it doesn't matter what the U.S. does. For every part per million of carbon dioxide that Americans cut, China, and its ever-burgeoning population and growing economy, will be pumping out even more.”

And there’s an even more unhelpful attitude. “Can’t win, don’t try.” But of course, in this case, the truth of the claim is based not only on general cynicism, but also on the assumption that no positive change will ever occur on the other side of the Pacific, and as I’ve just said above, that’s simply not the case. And putting aside observable efforts on the part of the Chinese to cut emissions, could it not be the case that the meteoric rise of their emissions is due to the fact that they are rapidly industrializing, rather than already having been industrialized, and that the rate of increase will naturally level off over time?

But now we get to the really profoundly idiotic claims of this favored editorial:

“Fortunately, there's no reason for any nation to cut its carbon dioxide emissions. CO2 is not a pollutant in the usual sense. It is, in the words of John R. Christy, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Alabama, ‘a plant food.’”

No, it isn’t a pollutant in the usual sense. It’s a pollutant in an unusual sense. It’s the kind that has environmental impacts that are a little more difficult to observe than the kind that make you say, “Hey, why is my drinking water brown?” or “Didn’t I used to be able to see the sun?”

Yeah, it’s a plant food, and a really good thing in that regard. But you know what else is a plant food? Livestock excrement. And I doubt very much that those in opposition to CO2 regulations would argue that the world would be better off if we were all knee deep in shit.

But maybe I’m wrong about that. After all, bullshit is exactly what drives most of these anti-environmental commentaries, and they just keep piling it on.

"The green world we see around us would disappear if not for atmospheric CO2," Christy says.
"These plants largely evolved at a time when the atmospheric CO2 concentration was many times what it is today," he adds. "Indeed, numerous studies indicate the present biosphere is being invigorated by the human-induced rise of CO2."

The author would have to cite those studies, for me to appropriately respond to them, but even assuming that the basic claim is true, the plant life of the present biosphere may be invigorated by more carbon dioxide, but the fact that the atmospheric levels are constantly increasing should fairly convincingly indicate that those plants are not keeping up with the output. They could hardly be benefiting from the excess if they aren’t using it for respiration, and if they were, they’d be converting it to oxygen.

I wonder what “these plants” are that Christy indicates evolved at a time when there was more carbon dioxide than there is now. Perhaps he means flowering plants, which evolved over 200 million years ago. Or maybe he’s referring to more common land plants, which began to evolve some 540 million years ago. Well, in any event, it was some time more than 15 million years ago, which is the last time that carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are now. That was also well before deforestation removed half of the Earth’s forests from its surface, thereby substantially reducing the number of plants available to digest that “plant food” that is human-emitted carbon dioxide.

Now, finally, we get to the strange heart of opposition to carbon regulations:

“It is because of its presence in everything from breathing to driving to manufacturing to reading at home under the lights that CO2 makes a strong leverage point for those who want bureaucratic control over the rest of us, says Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

Much like global warming denial, Glenn Beck fandom, and New World Order conspiracy theories, the view of regulation demonstrated in this quotation relies on extraordinary paranoia. Unless I’m somehow misreading it, the implication is that the EPA, environmentally conscious politicians, and presumably individual environmentalists all push for modest reductions in overall carbon dioxide emissions because they simply share a wicked desire to make people less free.

I must say that if a government or an evil cabal of environmentalists wanted to exert control over the private lives of the citizenry, they could come up with better ways of doing so than limiting the amount of carbon dioxide that a handful of corporations are allowed to pour into the atmosphere from their industrial processes and as waste products from the things that they produce. I mean, there’s a point at which I have to stop going at these absurd notions head on and just defer to Occam’s razor by asking which requires the fewer number of unsubstantiated postulates: the claim that the EPA is interested in regulating carbon dioxide as a way of enhancing bureaucratic control over society for God-knows-what purpose, or that they think carbon dioxide is a danger to the environment and are, in their capacity as the Environmental Protection Agency, trying to mitigate it.

And as an aside, notice how Lindzen mentions carbon dioxide’s presence in breathing as a reason why it’s “a strong leverage point.” Need I remind anyone that its presence in breathing is as a waste product? To those who think a constant increase in CO2 levels is a good thing I offer this bit of advice: try breathing it some time.

Frankly, their mental capacity makes me wonder whether they already have:

“And if CO2 continues to fall, or remains nearly flat, what will the alarmists do? Will environmentalists find a new bogeyman? They will. But they better hurry. The time they have left to demonize CO2 is running short.”

No. CO2 levels never fell. What fell was the amount that they increased. Unfortunately for we alarmists who want to scare you into giving up your God-given right to barbeque old tires and used batteries in your backyard, we have plenty of time left to demonize unregulated carbon dioxide emissions. And as for those of you who actually do have the money and power to exert a measure of control over men’s lives, you still have some time to profit off of those emissions. Or you could invest in something that will allow your grandchildren to inherent not just wealth, but a livable world. But, you know, it’s up to you what’s important.

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