Opinator Cura Te Ipsum

“Opinion-leader heal thyself!”
(doesn’t seem to have found its way onto the pages of the International Herald Tribune)

Dear Editors

It’s very good for Paul Krugman (“The Politics of Spite“, Oct 5) and Tom Friedman (“Where Did ‘We’ Go?“, Sep 29) to lament the decay of contemporary US political debate into mutual accusations and “puerile spite“. Could anybody therefore please explain if those are the same Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman that regularly describe in unyieldingly negative tones anybody not sharing their opinions on global warming/climate change?

The (Un-)wisdom of Bill McKibben

If the Gods of Olympus subscribed to the New York Review of Books, they would surely be laughing hard after reading the unwitting ironies peppering Bill McKibben’s “Green Fantasia” review of Thomas L Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America”.

One wonders if Mr. McKibben will find a way to display less hubris, and more wisdom next time around.

I will focus here on what I see as the two most glaring examples: first of all, about Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans and, in the words of Mr McKibben, “woke Friedman from his nap”.

At that point, Mr McKibben (who should have known better) implicity concedes Mr Friedman’s point: making a direct connection between Katrina, and human-induced Climate Change.

[Friedman:] “Have we introduced so much CO2 into nature’s operating system that we no longer know where nature stops and we start in shaping today’s weather”. [McKibben:] Well, indeed we have.

But no serious scientist will confirm that Katrina was caused by (anthropogenic) Climate Change. Within the IPCC itself, the question of “attribution” (how to identify the “signature” of Climate Change in the weather of today, rather than the climate in 15 or 20 years’ time) is still open, and no doubt we will hear more about it in the months leading to the December 2009 Copenhagen Conference.

After all, Katrina was a relatively average Category-3 hurricane when it struck the New Orleans area. And even if 2005 saw a record hurricane season, neither that nor the “duds” of 2006 and 2007 can be used as evidence for or against Climate Change.

In truth, Mr McKibben should have forcefully corrected Mr Friedman on Katrina, as it is extremely unwise to try to solve Climate Change, that he defines as the “most severe of our challenges”, starting from incorrect premises. In fact, by propagating the idea that New Orleans was destroyed by Climate Change, Mr McKibben and Mr Friedman help the real culprits “off the hook”, including the extreme lack of organization in the rescue efforts, of which FEMA’s now-legendary incompetence will forever be indicated as the most damning example.

Another point where Mr McKibben will surely regret his words, concerns “the largest story of the year, and indeed the dominant new trendline of our time”. Dire financial straits for the majority of the world’s economies, perhaps? No: “the sharply rising cost of oil”.

Evidently, Mr McKibben submitted the article long before Lehman Brothers went bust alongside the country of Iceland, before it became normal to hear of hundreds of billions of dollars being handled out to avoid a Depression-Mark II; and before the “cost of oil” sharply stumbled back to below $60 a barrel. No fault there.

The real irony is that Mr McKibben comments that Mr Friedman’s book is “out of date even before it’s published”: that is, exactly what McKibben’s article is. Images of motes and beams spring to mind…also, is it true that “we’re [possibly] starting to run out [of oil]”? Well, yes, it is possible. But as the precipituous fall in oil prices has shown, that was not the reason for barrels to be traded at more than $140 just a few weeks ago.

A final consideration on Mr McKibben’s polemic against Mr Friedman’s “optimism”, “the great imperative of the conventional wisdom”: the alternative to which is alas left unexplored.

Is Bill McKibben advocating “pessimism” by any chance? And what kind of pessimism, one asks? Obviously (or not?) McKibben is not the type to elicit apathy and desperation by advocating a frame of mind where everything we do is useless, because too little, and too late. Therefore: if “Global Warming, above all, should give one pause” (emphasis in the original), what is the next action (if there is any) after that pause has finished?

And by the way…the reason for Mr Friedman’s optimism can be found with a simple search in The New York Times archives, in the May 11, 2008 “Mother’s Day” column:

“But every time life knocked [my mother] down, she got up, dusted herself off and kept on marching forward, motivated by the saying that pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong, but most great changes were made by optimists”

And so to you Bill McKibben…what would you rather be? “Usually right”, or able to “[make] great changes”?

You say "Climate", I say "Energy"

Which one is true? (a) Energy Production is one of the issues around Climate Change, or (b) Climate Change is one of the issue around Energy Production…

That is not an idle question, because we are usually presented with (a), whilst there is some strong indication that the underlying situation is (b): in other words, that the panicking about Climate Change is one of the strongest levers in an overall strategy to shift economies away from their reliance on fossil fuels.

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We can start from the recent curious decision by the UK Government to bring together Climate and Energy in a single “Department” (=Ministry). The new Department is being sold as the best way to handle the often-opposing forces towards a “cleaner” country, and the provision of the necessary amounts of energy.

Following the same logic, what’s next? A “Department of Land Use” taking care of transportation and rural affairs at the same time? Why have all those departments then, since everything can be concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister?

The BBC itself noticed how peculiar the whole arrangement looks, but did not examine it fully in too-short an article by Roger Harrabin. In any case, the marriage of “Energy” and “Climate Change” (usually in the shape of “Environment”) is taking place elsewhere as well.

On The New York Times, a “new blog on energy and the environment” has just been inaugurated. The European Climate Foundation has recently launched a survey on “Energy and Climate Change”. The IPCC has just decided to publish its own study on “Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation” (at this rate, by the way, there will soon be an omnicomprehensive IPCC-pedia with the Panel’s view on everything…).

But in truth, “mitigating, preventing and/or adapting to Climate Change” (just as “protecting the Environment”) is much more than just switching from one energy source to another. And energy policy cannot simply be dictated by climate change concerns.

So if Energy and Climate Change are forced together, which one gives?

Consider Thomas L Friedman sudden summer interest in everything Climate Change:

  1. On May 28, 2008: “Truth or Consequences“, decrying the lack of a good “energy policy for the long-term economic health and security of our country” and advocating high prices for gasoline, forever. “We need to make a structural shift in our energy economy“.
  2. On July 20: “9/11 and 4/11“, denouncing President Bush’s decision to “lift the executive orders banning drilling for oil and natural gas off the country’s shoreline“. Once again we are told the energy crisis should be used “to summon the country to a great nation-building project focused on clean energy” to solve a “multifaceted, multigenerational energy/environment/geopolitical problem“.
  3. On Aug 3: “The Iceman Cometh“, about flying to a remote scientific outpost in Greenland researching climate history in ice cores. Results seem to indicate that “our climate system has the ability to make very abrupt changes all by itself“, hence “the last thing that mankind should be doing is adding its own forcing actions
  4. On Aug 5: “Learning to Speak Climate“, talking about his “very strong opinion” that “our kids are likely going to spend a good part of their adulthood, maybe all of it, just dealing with the climate implications of our profligacy“. Cue stories about a warming Greenland.
  5. On Aug 10: “Flush With Energy“, applauding bicycles in Denmark and the notion that the 1973 oil crisis made that country become energy-independent. Local Prime Minister confirms: “The cure is not to reduce the price, but, on the contrary, to raise it even higher to break our addiction to oil“.
  6. On Aug 12: “Eight Strikes and You’re Out“, denouncing Sen. John McCain absence from every vote on renewable energy legislation. Without public financing, there cannot be “investments by many players in solar and wind so these technologies can quickly move down the learning curve and become competitive with coal and oil“.

What is Friedman’s overall concern? I think it is not climate change, rather moving energy production away from oil and all other fossil fuels.

“Climate Change” plays a secondary role, because the thrust is all concentrated on “breaking the addiction to oil”.

Friedman of course has a new book just coming out now: “Hot, Flat, and Crowded“, where he talks of being not in the year 2008, but in ““1 E.C.E.,” the first year of the “Energy-Climate Era””. Friedman makes the case that everybody wants to reach American levels of consumerism, and that is unsustainable: because of the excessive demands in energy, bring about Climate Change and other environmental bad news (such as the loss of biodiversity). And the solution? From the NYT review of the book:

What’s needed is the presidential leadership of an Abraham Lincoln or a Franklin Roosevelt to command enough authority to face down the fossil fuel lobbies and create a single, national system that would instantly release the pent-up innovation and creativity that is ready to get to work, cleaning up America’s energy supply and reducing its demand. Once the United States has done that, and shown that there’s money to be made from the new industry of “greening,” the rest of the world will, as a matter of self-interest, follow suit. In the process, America will have discovered a national mission for itself once more.

The central point is energy production, not changes to the climate. And therefore: when we hear commentators and politicans mention “Climate Change”, it’s “Energy” what they mean but cannot confirm in public.

Climate Change is “just” a tool in the quest to “improve” Energy supply.

The Illusion of Foreign Policy Morality

It is disconcerting to read a knowledgeable and experienced person such as Thomas L Friedman fall in an old trap, claiming foreign policy morality for his own country (“Which world do you prefer?“, IHT, July 17).

Mr Friedman is apparently convinced that “America still has some moral backbone” because the USA “put forward a simple Security Council resolution” at the UN, calling for a series of sanctions against the quasi-dictatorial Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Such a move failed, however, due to “truly filthy” vetoes by Russia and China. For that matter, Mr Friedman throws in the “pure, rancid moral corruption” of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki.

All hail the USA, then, because “there are travesties America will not tolerate“?

If only!

Doesn’t Mr Friedman know a thing about the US-backed regimes of Egypt and Pakistan, for example? Doesn’t he remember the scores of murderous dictatorships financed by successive US Administrations, on the horrendously immoral belief that it is ok to support a “bastard” as long as he was “our bastard“?

It is telling that a good response to Mr Friedman’s argument has been published in the very pages of the IHT, in the “Letter from China” by Howard W French of July 4, 2008 (“Behind the reluctance to criticize Mugabe“): where we learn for example how a mere twenty years ago, Washington (and London) were “running diplomatic interference for apartheid rule in Pretoria“, going as far as “backing South African guerrilla proxies in places like Angola, prolonging devastating wars there and elsewhere, and staving off independence for South African-occupied Namibia in the name of fighting communism“.

At this very moment, the USA and its “Western” allies are supporting dictators in Equatorial Guinea, and Angola. Is there a need to repeat here what everybody thinks, i.e. that such “travesties” are tolerated, whilst Mugabe’s is not, because Zimbabwe doesn’t have huge oil deposits?

That said, at the end of the day there is little point in starting a USA-bashing rhetorical exercize, just as there is little meaning in Mr Friedman’s clutching at moral straws regarding a particular vote at the Security Council.
This is the world we live in, and if we care for its morality the first step surely is not to delude ourselves into thinking that our side is “of course” the “good side”.