On climate change and not wrestling with pigs

The saying goes, ‘Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.’

Unfortunately in the case of climate change debate, the temptation is difficult to resist. There is a small army of well-funded pseudo-scientists and PR hacks dedicated to spreading as much misinformation as possible who end up getting vastly disproportionate coverage by mainstream news media, perpetuating the myth that there is any legitimacy to their claims or that there is anything other than overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter of anthropogenic global warming.

Case in point being a recent radio discussion between Richard Littlemore of DeSmogBlog and Christopher Walter in which the two men (neither of whom, as Littlemore readily admits, have any real science background) were tasked with debating the reality of “human-induced climate change”. Early on in the debate, Littlemore made the point that, given that neither of them were scientists, there was no real point in debating the science behind the claims: what DeSmogBlog covers is public relations; likewise, Walter has no science credentials and has a background in politics and PR, meaning that neither of them should really be passing themselves off as climate change authorities.

However, predictably and unfortunately the debate goes precisely in the direction of debating “the facts” and when you enter this territory, the IPCC/scientific consensus is inevitably going to suffer. Even though all the points Walter introduces are widely acknowledged to be standard bullshit climate denier talking points, merely introducing them will produce in listeners (and transcript-readers) the impression that there is a level of uncertainty and disagreement in the scientific community that just isn’t there. Littlemore does a pretty good job debunking most of Walter’s BS on the spot, but the fact that a “debate” on the science behind anthropogenic climate change between two non-scientists is being legitimized in this way is a loss from the get go.

I just purchased it and haven’t read it yet, but it seems like the logic from George Lakoff’s book,
Don’t Think of an Elephant!
, could be applied here: by entering into debates like this and in these circumstances, one accepts the frame being proposed by the deniers, which is that there is any point to such a debate, and public opinion could thereby be somehow better informed. The best thing to do is to stop wrestling with the pigs, and stop feeding the trolls.

The world’s dirtiest cities

There’s an interesting photo gallery at Popsci.com giving a brief overview of the 10 dirtiest cities on earth. While there are some no-brainers like Mexico City and Linfen, China, there are some surprise candidates too, like Milan and Pittsburgh, PA too.

I wonder if Peterborough, ON would make the top 10 list for Canada. Apparently our the air quality in my hometown is regularly worse than in Toronto, and I know for a fact that Little Lake, which sits in the heart of Peterborough, is at least one if not two orders of magnitude more PCB-contaminated than Lake Ontario.

Canadian carbon tax plans

The federal Green Party (of which I am a member) has just announced their plan for a national carbon tax, along with a gas tax, while Dion has provided more details on the Liberals’ plan.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are still firmly entrenched in the “sit on our asses and do nothing” camp, calling the Liberal’s plan a “revenue grab”. Thank God we have the Conservatives to

Yay Canada

Canadian students’ environmental knowledge and attitudes

Those interested in the environment may have missed some relevant findings from the 2006 OECD‘s PISA Science assessment results. The education findings are well-known (Canadian youth score highly both on raw achievement and on equity measures), but less well-known is the fact that the Science assessment also gauged youths’ awareness of and attitudes towards environmental issues.

Canadian students:

  • ranked 7th on awareness of environmental issues
  • were slightly below the OECD average when it came to concern for these issues,
  • were below average on their optimism that these environmental problems will be improved in the next 20 years
  • were at the OECD average on measures surrounding responsibility for sustainable development

It’s worth noting that students from the “most culpable countries” (in which we could include, according roughly to consumption and pollution per capita: Canada, the USA, the UK, Australia, New Zealand) were all below the OECD average for concern about environmental issues.

What would be interesting would be a measure that related, say, per capita carbon output to awareness/concern for environmental issues. If these PISA results are representative of a broader trend, I imagine Canada would fall seriously short on such an indicator.

Strong National Support for British Columbia’s Carbon Tax

A recent survey by the Pembina Institute found that 72% of Canadians support BC’s carbon tax, an idea that has been getting a fair bit of discussion recently in the blogosphere (I hate that word).

It seems like there’s a growing consensus (Jack Layton and Stephen Harper (!?) aside) that a carbon tax, rather than a cap and trade system, may be the way to go. While there has been a fair bit of news lately about the rather significant amount of money that is circulating on carbon trading markets (in the 50s and 60s billion USD), it also seems to be the case that that flurry of economic activity is mostly just smoke and mirrors, and that, e.g., the caps for the European system were not set appropriately so that little actual reduction in carbon output is occurring.

The complexities associated with a working cap and trade system are legion, which is one of the reasons why people are looking to a carbon tax, which is much simpler to implement. But the tax that BC is proposing is small and not significant enough to result in any real consumer behaviour change. Moreover, there are legitimate concerns that the tax will be regressive, putting the greatest economic pressure on people in lower income brackets, and also its “revenue neutrality” (which seems like a great idea for getting people to accept it) will, in the end, make it difficult for any of the tax monies to be spent on investment in cleaner/renewable energy technologies.

So we’re left with one system that seems to unwieldy to implement vs. another that doesn’t seem to carry much promise of actually reducing carbon output, at least in its current form. That said, I still side with the carbon tax. While making it revenue neutral to start may not be a bad idea, it needs to get ramped up very quickly for it to have any effect, and also to have provisions that ensure that low-income Canadians are not left in the lurch.