Friends of the Earth takes a baby step forward: when will they take the big one?

Tears in heaven etc as Friends of the Earth finally agrees with scientific opinion on nuclear power. Yes, they’ve admitted that actually it’s rather safe. Which it is: deaths caused by power generation per terrawatt produced are lower than any other method of electricity generation. Yes, really, more people fall of roofs installing solar than die from radiation from power plants.

Which is good, that’s a baby step forward. Even George Monbiot changed his mind on this when Fukushima showed that no one at all is killed by radiation even when three plants meltdown after a very large earthquake indeed and the associated tsunami (which in itself killed tens of thousands).

So, what’s the remaining problem?

When the presenter asked him to explain the group’s opposition to nuclear power stations he got this reply: “The biggest risk of nuclear power is that it takes far too long to build, it’s far too costly, and distorts the national grid by creating an old model of centralised power generation.”

Well, certain of us think that centralised power generation is just fine: we might even say that we’re rather fond of the idea of being able to turn the lights on without having to check our watch to see if we’re able to.

But the next, and larger, step in this is that we need to examine why nuclear is so expensive, takes so long to build?

That would be because the hippies have been screaming blue bloody murder about the radiation problem all these decades. So, now that we can all agree that the radiation isn’t a problem the hippies will, at least we can hope they will, stop that screaming and we can dial back the public inquiries, the planning appeals and the monstrously overdone safety regulations so that we can have cheap, as well as that safe, nuclear power generation.

Well, in a rational world we would but that ain’t our one, is it?

When science tells you something you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth

We’ve a lovely little example today of where so many environmentalists go wrong on this climate change thing. As always around here we’ll take the IPCC seriously as a matter of exposition of logic. So, The Guardian’s running a column in which sure, the IPCC is right about the dangers of climate change, about the way that they prove that something ought to be done. However, they’re entirely wrong about what should be done (ie, get markets and private money involved in changing the world) because, well, you know, that’s just neoliberal economics and that can’t be right, can it?

The IPCC report has done a wonderful job at alerting the global public opinion about the urgency to prevent, or at least limit, climate change. Also, it has correctly identified the growing pressure climate change will put on public finances, thus worsening the crisis of the state. But when it comes to finding solutions, it has not escaped the neoliberal zeitgeist, and especially the tendency to see in financial markets an answer, rather than a source of social problems.

This is indeed a small example of a larger problem. People taking the IPCC seriously on climate change, the need to do something, but then insisting that this means the IPCC supports their own plan for whatever should be done. As, for example, we note around here often enough the Greenpeace and the like plan to move forward into the Middle Ages in response to it all.

Here’s the problem with these projections. The very proof that the IPCC uses that something is worth doing, that doing something will be, in the end, less costly than doing nothing, is entirely based on that neoliberal economics. More specifically, that we use the most efficient methods of mitigating climate change (ie, a carbon tax, not any of this regulatory rubbish and most certainly not a retreat to feudalism).

Both William Nordhaus and Richard Tol have done a lot of work on this. Leaving out their differing numbers the logic is: it’s worth spending $x to avoid damages of $x or more than $x. If $y is greater than $x then it’s not worth spending $y to avoid damages of $x. They both go on to point out, at various times, that the most efficient method of spending to avoid damages is that carbon tax. Thus spending $x in a carbony tax sorta manner can be justified if we’re reducing future damages by $x or more. However, because other methods (regulation, law, targets, micromanagement) are less efficient then that is akin to trying to insist that spending $y is worth avoiding damages of $x (where y is still larger than x).

Note that none of this depends upon whether the IPCC is correct in its science about climate change at all. This logic is internal to the system. The IPCC has only, using neoliberal economics, shown that responding to climate change in the most efficient manner possible (ie, using neoliberal economics) is worthwhile. This means that you cannot then project your own desired, less efficient, solutions onto the world using the IPCC as your justification.

So ideas like the one quoted above just don’t fly. You can’t reject the neoliberalism of the IPCC solutions because they are integral to the argument that anything at all should be done.

Rowan Williams falls into the old climate change logical trap

For someone who trained as a theologian and philosopher this is rather sad: Rowan Williams has, in his retirement, fallen into an all too common logical trap in discussing climate change and what we ought to do about it. His piece is here and that trap is that while it’s entirely possible to prove that climate change is a problem that we should do something about (a view largely held here at the ASI) that is not the same thing as saying that because climate change is a problem we should do anything about it. Anything here meaning not that we should do nothing, but that we end up giving credence to the more ludicrous suggestions about what we should do.

This is an extremely important point and it’s one that is desperately misunderstood too.

OK, so climate change is a problem and we should do something about it. Please, no, let’s just take that as a starting assumption for the rest of this discussion. Excellent, does that mean we should follow Greenpeace and abolish industrial capitalism? That would be to embrace the “do anything” option and it would be ludicrous. The costs in human tragedy of starving a few billion of us as we return to an agrarian feudalism would be worse than anything that climate change could possibly foist upon us.

That is, the merits of doing whatever to deal with climate change depend not upon the merits of beating climate change but upon the merits of doing that particular thing.

And that’s where this pernicious logical error comes in. That some things might or should be done to deal with climate change is, in our opinion, entirely true. But this does not then mean that every brainspasm that issues from a politician or environmentalist is worth doing due to the threat of climate change. We have to go through each and every suggested action to see whether it does make sense, or not, given the costs and benefits of that action.

The past year has seen the obstacles blocking action on climate change beginning to crumble. Opposition on scientific grounds looks pretty unpersuasive in the light of what has come from the experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their seven-year study states that they are now 95% certain that human activity is a significant and avoidable element in driving climate change around the world. Predicted changes in the climate are now being observed in the most vulnerable countries, confirming the predictive models that have been used.

The suggestion that action on this would have too great an economic cost is likewise looking increasingly shaky.

No, absolutely not. Proof that some action is required, proof even that some actions would be justifiable, is not proof that all actions are desirable or justified. It depends upon the economic cost of each action itself to determine that.

Or, to put it in a shorter and simpler manner. Just because climate change might be real it doesn’t mean that the world of Caroline Lucas, George Monbiot or Bob Ward makes any sense. We’re not entirely sure that a world that contains Bob Ward makes sense come to that.

David Attenborough has decided to nationalise your garden

Isn’t this nice of David Attenborough? He has decided that your garden is no longer your property, for you to do as you wish with, he has decided that your garden, the one that you bought, you maintain and you pay the taxes upon, is now to be used as he wishes:

Nature reserves and national parks are not enough to prevent a catastrophic decline in nature, David Attenborough has told politicians, business leaders and conservationists, saying that every space in Britain from suburban gardens to road verges must be used to help wildlife.

Britain’s leading commentator on wildlife called for a radical new approach to conservation which did not bemoan the past but embraced the changes brought by climate change and a rapidly growing human population.

“Where in 1945 it was thought that the way to solve the problem was to create wildlife parks and nature reserves, that is no longer an option. They are not enough now. The whole countryside should be available for wildlife. The suburban garden, roadside verges … all must be used”.

In other walks of life we call this theft.

If a wealthy octogenarian wishes to improve the life opportunities of hedgehogs then he can donate some portion of his substantial fortune to St. Tiggywinkles. This naked grab to nationalise (or Attenboroughize) our property for his purposes should not and cannot be allowed to stand.

The entire point of private property is that we get to use it and dispose of it as we wish. You do so with yours Sir David and we’ll do so with ours.

Yes, the Club of Rome and Limits to Growth is still piffle, why do you ask?

Perhaps because The Guardian seems to be giving the piffle another run for its money:

The 1972 book Limits to Growth, which predicted our civilisation would probably collapse some time this century, has been criticised as doomsday fantasy since it was published. Back in 2002, self-styled environmental expert Bjorn Lomborg consigned it to the “dustbin of history”.

It doesn’t belong there. Research from the University of Melbourne has found the book’s forecasts are accurate, 40 years on. If we continue to track in line with the book’s scenario, expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.

Yeah, real soon now.

There’s two very basic logical and or evidential flaws in the original study, ones that continue into the various updates that Graham Turner (a physicist, just the person you want to be pronouncing on things like resource availability, eh?) has spent the last few years turning out.

Firstly, they talk about the availability of minerals. And they manage to get this entirely wrong. They start by saying that mineral reserves are x. OK, that’s cool enough. Then they compare reserves to annual usage, add a bit for growth in usage as the economy grows and that’s fine enough too. They also (and here they’re better than many that do this exercise) tell us that of course mineral reserves are not all that matters. There’s mineral resources out there too, things we know about that we can convert to those reserves. All of this is fine so far.

Except they then assume (yes, this is a specific assumption they make, one they tell us they make) that mineral resources are ten times mineral reserves. So, if we’ve got mineral reserves of 30 years then we’ve got resources for 300: then we run out, civilisation collapses and AIEEE! We! All! Die!

This is complete and total piffle. There is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between reserves and resources. Running from memory here but mineral reserves of potassium are of the order of 60 years or so. Resources are 13,000 years’ worth. Reserves of aluminium are around 30 years and resources will last us until the heat death of the universe. There are no reserves nor resources of tellurium anywhere on the planet. Yet we still manage to produce the 120 tonnes a year we use quite happily and can continue to do so for hundreds of thousands of years yet.

There simply is no connection at all between these two definitions of minerals available to us, not in the quantities that belong in each category.

Their misunderstanding gets worse too. It costs a lot of money to convert a resource (something we know where it is, what it’s made of, that we can process it using current technology at current prices and make a profit doing so) into a reserve (exactly the same except that we have proven all of these points to certain technical and legal standards). There’s a nickel mine out there that is currently producing large amounts of nickel. But it’s not making a profit: so the ore that it is mining is still a resource, because it’s not been proven yet that the new extraction method is profitable. It’s just not a reserve yet even though it is producing. And it’s taken $4 billion to get to this point too.

So, if converting a resource into a reserve costs these sorts of sums then people only do it when they’re about to start actually mining it. Which means that reserves, for obvious economic reasons, tend at any one point to be some 20-50 years’ worth of usage. Why spend $4 billion *proving* something now when you’re not going to dig it up for half a century?

Now we can see the piffleness of their assumption. If, for economic reasons, reserves are only say 30 years’ worth of minerals then assuming that resources are ten times reserves means that whenever and whatever else you do with your calculations then we run out of minerals in 300 years’ time and AIEE! We! All! Die!

The basic assumption that the Club of Rome started with means that, inaccurately, the answer to Limits to Growth is always going to be that we run out of minerals in a couple of hundred years. It’s simply not true and it’s not true because one of their basic assumptions is piffle of the highest, almost Boris-like, pifflyness.

Turner then makes another hilariously piffly assumption. It’s detailed here but essentially he says that we cannot substitute for fossil fuels. We’ll not be able to use aluminium, or steel, or silicon, instead of coal and oil:

To account for substitutability between resources a simple and robust position has been taken. First, it is assumed here that metals and minerals will not substitute for bulk energy resources such as fossil fuels.

This is piffle of such magnitude that it ascends nonsense and rises to the level of argle bargle. Consider what is a windmill: it’s the use of aluminium, rare earths, steel, concrete, as a substitute for fossil fuels. Solar cells are the substitution of silicon and gallium for fossil fuels. Tidal power is the substitution of concrete and turbines for fossil fuels.

In fact, all renewable energy technologies are the substitution of metals and minerals for fossil fuels.

So, he’s telling us that we can’t have energy because we can’t use renewables and he’s also telling us that we don’t have enough minerals anyway. But both of these statements are wrong. No, not just mistaken, not arguably a bit extreme, not even well meaning errors. They’re out and out fabrications stemming from the piffle nature of the original assumptions. Those two, entirely incorrect, assumptions make the Limits to Growth calculations always turn out this way. That in 300 years’ time AIEE! We! All! Die!

Start again with the correct, non-piffle, assumptions, that we’ve plenty of minerals and we can use metals and minerals to substitute for fossil fuels and all the problems fade away. For if we have metals, minerals and energy then we don’t all end up dying (AIEE! etc.) in 300 years’ time from a lack of energy, metals and minerals, do we?

I’ve the notes around to do an entire book on this point but I’ve never actually bothered to sit down and scribble it out. Surely no one actually believes this piffle anyway so why bother refuting it? I might have to reconsider that…..