Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Appearance and Reality

There is a new kind of politics which has emerged post Bush (41) and John Major which involves what might be termed a post-modern view of facts. Politicians and the chattering class have abandoned the idea that there is an independent reality “out there” which can be independently verified and assessed. The new political epistemology moves us from truths that can be proven and verified or falsified to narratives that can be constructed.


Lord Mandelson, the British cabinet Minister (for the third time) and ex EU Commissioner, speaks of the need to “create the truth” - of building a story that is compelling and enables the government to develop policies, positions and activities and take strong action. For him, narrative has the appearance of reality. The old dictum that “comment is free but facts are sacred” (C P Scott, editor at one time of The Guardian) is no longer the case, since in many cases (school standards, emission reporting, global warming, number unemployed) facts are “fitted” to the narrative. Even such simple things as the tracking of temperature from monitoring stations across the world are “adjusted” to fit the narrative of climate change.


What happens when this occurs is that Government lives in a parallel universe from those of us who still think that there is an independent reality out there that can be verified and that we seek to understand through science. They pursue policies – whether about climate change or schools, health care or grizzly bears – which are based on their own narratives and their own “fitted” data.

A case in point. The idea that climate scientists have, by some process, reached a “consensus” and that 4,000 of them have agreed on “the science” is an example of this kind of narrative based claim that cannot be verified by reference to facts. The figure of 4,000 scientosts comes from a press release from the UN/IPCC and is a media invention – it refers to how many people were involved in the IPCC process, not all of whom are scientists and very few of those who are happen to climate scientists. We cannot verify, however, their “views” about the science or the extent to which they would be willing to agree with all aspects of both the scientific documents in the IPCC or the Summary for Policy Makers. We do know, however, that not all of them supported the “science” and that several have called the process by the which the Summary for Policy Makers. Yet the 4,000 scientists claim is now established as if it were fact, and that is all that matters.

Equally, it is very clear that there is no consensus about the science. There is a dominant view, in part created by the usual process of gate-keeping access to publications and the very significant research funding available. But “dominant” and “only view” are not the same thing.
Science is not a democratic enterprise. It is a process of discovery based on evidence, theories and analysis. It just takes one compelling piece of evidence to disrupt the dominant view – just look at the history of science to see how important this observation can be. It is also worth noting that consensus does not mean correct. The current scientific dominant view about climate change is what it is – a view. It may or may not be correct.

The more dramatic area in which the new politics is becoming blatant is in the action plans for achieving the policies intended to reduce C02 emissions and “stop” climate change (another example of an illusion posing as a possibility).

The idea that one can reduce emissions in Canada by paying for a forest (which may or may not be planted and may or may not survive) in some other country or that we can trade carbon credits and this will reduce emissions is so obviously absurd, yet it is now part of the political reality (read myth).


Another example is the idea that emissions reductions will create Green Jobs. This rhetoric is rife, especially in the Obama administration. But the actual experience is very different. Spain is a case in point. Spain has a great many wind farms. By 2010 Spain will have 20,000 megawatts of installed capacity. Even in 2009 at the peak of the winds in February it was able to generate 11,800 megawatts – 29% of the energy requirements of Spain on a particular day (meaning that the turbines were working at 69% of their capacity). Spain ranks third in the world for wind power. Ahead of Spain are Germany, at nearly 24,000 megawatts of capacity, and the United States, at No. 1, with over 25,000 megawatts. Wind power has grown in Spain because of subsidy – also the case for solar power. In the case of wind, subsidy is market price (regulated by the Government with a requirement that the energy companies must buy wind power) plus 90% of the market price for a period of fifteen years, when it drops to 80%. In the case of solar power, the subsidy is 575% of the market price for twenty five years, when it falls to 460% above market. Contracts are underwritten by the Government at an annual cost of (app) €28.6 billion. It is not surprising, then, that the Government’s 2008 target for growth in installed capacity for renewable power of 371 megawatts was beaten by the actual new capacity created – 2,934 megawatts. The Spanish government has now capped growth.

A recent economic analysis from the Juan Carlos University in Madrid suggests that, rather than creating the 50,000 jobs the Spanish government claimed would be created, the net green jobs created are closer to 15,000. Most of these jobs are associated with construction, since few are required once construction is completed to maintain and manage the wind and solar installed capacity. What is more, renewable energy has led to lost jobs elsewhere (especially when coupled with the impact of the European Carbon Credit Trading System – cap and trade). The study just mentioned suggests that the net costs of creating a single sustainable green job are app. €500 million. It also suggests that, for every green job created, some 3.9 jobs are lost in other sectors – someone has to pay for this subsidy level.

Cap and trade is another of these cases where the rhetoric and reality are two very different things. The claim is that cap and trade for CO2 is the primary mechanism by which the world will achieve its targeted emissions. There is no convincing evidence that cap and trade in and of itself will lead to this result. It has yet to happen in any jurisdiction that operates cap and trade.

So when we look at Copenhagen and its outcomes, we should distance ourselves from the language and the rhetoric and look at evidence. After all, this is what we scientists do.

2 comments:

Rod said...

Stephen...I have been following your Blog for some time and agree with your views. I feel the BBC have been driving the media on this, particularly in Britain and in time will have to answer for their inaccuracies and reliance on unsubstantiated "expert' research and opinion.
Rod Murgatroyd.

Stephen Murgatroyd said...

Extracts from an Australian Government cabinet briefing document:

While carbon trading and offset schemes seem set to spread, they so far appear ineffective in terms of actually reducing GHGs. Despite this apparent failure, ETS remain politically popular amongst the industrialised polluters. The public appearance is that action is being undertaken. The reality is that GHGs are increasing and society is avoiding the need for substantive proposals to address the problem of behavioural and structural change.

and this:

The billions of dollars now being generated in trading carbon and offsets has created a powerful institutional structure which has many vested interests whose opportunities for making money rely on maintaining GHG emissions, not reducing them. The transaction costs inherent in these markets are actually being seen as a source of economic growth rather than a deadweight loss to society. Once created, how politicians will cut the market by 80 percent—even within the 40 years they are allowing themselves—is hard to imagine. After all, the reason for emissions trading is that corporations and the technostructure proved too powerful for the political process to establish a tax or direct regulation in the first place.

More evidence of appearance and reality and why such a strategy (talk one thing, do something different) works.