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On climate change

I don't know if the predictions made in response to climate change are real. I don't know that they are and I don't know that they aren't. I could find out: I work as a scientist and I have significant training; I have the skills to find the appropriate literature, to read, to understant and to evaluate. Why haven't I, you might ask. Those who know me probably know the true answer, but we will add to that that I don't think it actually matters.

Not that I don't think climate change actually matters, but that I don't think my looking it up actually matters. Just as it doesn't matter if I believe what stepping on a crack will do to my mother as long as I don't step on one, it doesn't matter what I believe about the effect of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate as long as I am sensible. In fact, more to the point, it doesn't matter what I believe, because Rebecca generally takes charge of our environmental responsibility anyway, but we'll assume for the moment that it does.

Whether we like it or not, everything we do, every decision we make, comes by balancing costs (actual and potential) with perceived benefits. Why did we have what he had for dinner? Because it used up the most things which needed using up and we felt like eating it. You can reduce most decisions we make along those lines. Why should we aim to cut down down power consumption, water usage, frivolous drives etc.? They cost money, they use up resources and they are unnecessary. If they also harm the environment, then that is just another reason.

But that comes down to personal choice. Something which does concern me, though, is Government regulation. Not because I don't think it is necessary, but because I don't think they've the competence. Taking Australia as an example, Australian politicians are heavily over-represented by journalists, lawyers and unionists. None of these professions are typically heavily populated with the scientifically literate. I therefore find them to be generally incapable of making sound informed judgement. Whether it is on carbon dioxide emissions or on metadioxin.

A good example, to me, of the problems of letting politicians deal with the issue is the Kyoto Protocol. Trust me, I'm a scientist: For all intents and purposes, CO2 from China has the same effect on the atmosphere as CO2 from Japan as from India as from Australia as from the US as from Europe as from anywhere else.

For those who don't know how it works, the basic summary is this: The world is divided into two groups - Annex I (developed) and non Annex I (developing) countries (don't you love diplomatic speak). Annex I countries who ratify the protocol are required to cut the emissions down to 1990 levels. This ignores any improvement before 1990 - indeed, penalises countries for those improvements - in their targets, it ignores population change, and it doesn't differentiate between domestic pollution for domestic use and domestic pollution for exported use. This means that countries with strong mining/manufacturing bases are penalised, while countries with no mineral resources worth talking about reap the benefits of importing the materials without that nasty matter of the pollution.

Even worse, non Annex I countries are exempt. About 1/3rd of the world's population lives in China and India. And they are exempt. Worse than that: their pollution is exempt, while they can sell credits from things they do well. To me, this is absolutely insane. Let's say you had a scheme where someone got a tax rebate to compensate for money he loses. Fair enough, perhaps. Now let's say he get's the rebate on any money he loses, with no compensation or effect for money he earns, so if he earns $100 and loses $80, he gets rebates on $80, while if he earns $100020 and loses $100000, he gets rebates on $100000. Am I alone in thinking this is ridiculous? While I can potentially accept that the developing countries may be entitled to a different target, I don't see how it is at all helpful to have them both exempt from any targets while giving them scope to benefit from CO2 laundering. Do any of my readers have any ideas on how it is helpful? (Side note: any meaningful answer must also take into account things like level of corruption and human behaviour, and cannot just rest of idealistic naiveties)

And that is why I don't think politicians and diplomats should be regulate on science based issues, when they've not the competence. But then, most people I've spoken to who are in favour of it tend to rely on the argument "we need to do something, this is something, therefore we need to do this". The same basic rationale for its general signing, ratification or adoption.

But back to climate change. It might be real. It might not. Whether it is or not, long term actions to cut down emissions and waste probably aren't a bad idea, and long term they will probably save you money. Not wasting electricity won't hurt. And walking rather than driving for short trips will be far better for your fitness and health anyway.


Comment from Rob

Hi Alex,

You know me, I like to cycle all over the place anyway but I'm not above recognising my own hypocracies however - I own a car.

One of the reasons for the weakness of the Kyoto protocol was to keep the Americans on board (the largest producer of greenhouse gases), but I agree, it is weak and ineffectual, but maybe Kyoto is a start.

If we scale things down to an individual level, we could attempt to lead cartbon neutral lives, there are numerous websites that are designed to help us do this in measuring our own individual foot prints that we make on the environemnt. I recycle, compost as much as I can (I'm sure I could do more)I think about foodmiles and act accordingly when I shop and attempt to raise awareness amongst others of the issues. If we scale things up now to the local, national, international scale, some of the things that I do as an individual are motivated by directives, say from Europe, having and impact on regional government policy that encourages me to recycle my paper waste for instance. (I would do that anyway, but not everyone is as self rightous as I am!). Without such directives, partially derived from things like Kyoto, most ordinary folk would not bother, so however flawed, Kyoto has its purpose, as part of a global strategy of encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own actions for the good ogf the planet, As I said earlier ( and I note your other comments about whether governments are competant enough to help us run our lives) Kyoto is a start. But I'm not really sure whether it is out of the blocks yet.

In Swansea, cycling is so conveniant, gets you where you want to go, keeps you fit, beats congestion.....and does no harm. I do not understand why people don't do more of it. The Chinese, regardless of where they sit on some make beleive international classification, have got something right, there are 9 million alone in Bejing, according to the song! Lets hope it stays that way.

I respond

it is weak and ineffectual, but maybe Kyoto is a start

The problem is that people are happy to rest on their laurels of "we meet our Kyoto targets, the world is safe". Particularly if they are told by their leaders that Kyoto=good. My biggest problem with Kyoto is that, at its most cynical, Kyoto can actually have the effect of increasing CO2 emissions. Let's say you are selling aluminium to China. Aluminium is a light metal compared to, say, steel or titanium (that's why they make planes out of aluminium and black boxes out of titanium), so transporting it is relatively energy efficient. Making aluminium from alumina or bauxite, however, is quite energy intensive, and hence will generally make more CO2. For round figures' sake, we'll say 3 tons bauxite becomes 2 tons alumina becomes 1 ton aluminium (note, these figures are not right, just illustrative). If I dig up the bauxite and turn it into aluminium nearby, and then transport the aluminium to China, that is then 3 times as energy efficient as transporting te bauxite to China. Particularly if some of the aluminium then gets transported elsewhere. But under Kyoto, you are better off shipping the bauxite to China.

Actually, I've just had an idea. A solution. A nice little debating point. Presented for your consideration:

A tax on the elderly.

How does this help, you might ask. Answer is simple: Who controls most of the world's money and power. People far older than most of my readers. And when is the greenhouse effect predicted to have a significant effect on the world? After most of them are gone. So what we have is a global scale SKI generation. Greenhouse effect takes hold after they are dead, so they don't care. Besides which, they are the major culprits. They have spent all their CO2 allowance. Put a tax in place to compensate, using the money for CO2 reducing problems.

It's not unprecedented. I saw this documentary once where a society was able to cater for all the population's needs. One of the ways they did it was to recycle people once they got to a certain age...

Comment from Rob

I can't say too much as I'm starting to scratch the surface of middle age myself!

Possibly, if you are a pensioner and you have lived a life with a minimal carbon footprint, you might be entitled to a rebate. I know a guy in his seventies who still cycles all over the place, I would have thought he might be a bit cheesed off if he was taxed for all the damage he was meant to have caused. The poor bloke would feel like he is carrying the weight of the excesses of an entire generation.

On the last point, the council may introduce a recycle plan for elderly relatives.( or perhaps they already do.....social services)

I respond

The enforcement side of Kyoto is that if a country doesn't meet its targets they are liable for a fine. No matter how good or otherwise an individual is, if the country gets fined, all individuals pay. That's the way society works. But the bureaucracy involved in administering rebates or examining individual cases becomes unwieldly and has unnecessary carbon consumption. Kinda like the bbc spending lots of money on enforcing TV licences.

More than that, through his life, he may have been good, but he has been part of a system that has caused problems, so he pays. Simple as that. My taxes pay for schools and hospitals and all sorts of other things I don't use. I don't complain, because I am part of a society that needs schools and hospitals. If I don't like it, I can either start a campagin to abolish these, or I can go and become a hermit somewhere.

Social services recycles the elderly?!? What do they turn them into?

Comment from Rob Lewis

Ah yes, democracy, I forgot about that.

The mass of the people, hopefully, would act as a restraining influence on those that would produce an excess of carbon. Would it work in practice, or are we all too greedy and selfish for our own good?

On recycling the elderly, I think there are plans that will effectively do just that. If its true that people my age will have to work into their 70s before drawing pension, how old will people who are 15-20 years younger than me need to be before they'd be able to do the same. Not so much as recycling as extending the shelf life!

If the demographic bulge continues, with less and less younger people supporting more and more older people, as those older people die off, there will be less people behind creating less emissions. Maybe the long term plan is for that, and as the developing countries develop, so their birth rates go down leaving fewer people to produce fewer emissions and yet enjoy the benefits of the technological society.

I donít know (sigh), the more I think about it the more depressed I seem to get.

I respond

By and large, the world is scientifically illiterate. More than that, people don't actualy trust what scientists tell them. How do people know there is global warming? The only way you can know is through scientific evidence (no, anecdotal evidence such as "it feels warmer" doesn't count). More than that, how can people know the effect of carbon dioxide on global warming? Same answer. A large portion of my readers have access to the scientific literature. Have any of you actually read the literature to find out what it actually says? Me neither.

So we know because journalists and politicians tell us. An inconvenient truth is that Gore is probably making a run for US president in 2008 (disclaimer: I haven't seen the movie). I'll take my scientific knowledge from journalists at about the same time as I trust the used car salesman telling me its a great car and I don't need to test drive it. Given that their job is to sell screaming headlines catering to their demographic's prejudices (and/or to advance the newspaper owner's political views), I may well trust the car salesman more. So, again, the question: how do we know there is global warming? Because people who we don't trust to give us the facts straight tell us so.

I'm not global warming skepticing. What I'm saying is that the revolution ain't gonna come over this one. It's not about greedy or selfish. It's about the fact that we are hearing most of the stories from people who, deep down, we think are liars.

Be that as it may, I have a philosophical question for you all, dear readers. Let's assume that global warming is real, and humanity is having an impact. Are we obliged to act? If so, why? What is wrong with letting the global climate change? And the follow-up question: let's say the changes are real but aren't anthropogenic, do we have an obligation as a species to stop them? Why? For self-preservation or is there some sense that "the world needs to stay the same"? How can the world NEED anything?

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