Home > Environment > Talking Point Whack-a-Mole (1997 edition)

Talking Point Whack-a-Mole (1997 edition)

June 30th, 2007

Debating science with the postmodernist right is that their position is not so much a worldview as a collection of talking points. As regards passive smoking, for example, I don’t suppose anyone seriously believes that breathing cigarette smoke is harmless. But since all good rightwingers oppose regulation to restrict smoking, and are (mostly) unwilling to simply come out and say that nonsmokers should put up with the risk associated with other people’s smoke, they cling desperately to the occasional wins they have had such as the Osteen decision in 1998 (a court judgement, later overturned, critical of an even older report by the US EPA).

As this example illustrates, these talking points are just about impossible to kill. People like Andrew Bolt are still going on about the 1997 Oregon petition, in which a lot of people (about 1 per cent of whom had any more relevant qualifications than I do) agreed with a misleading statement sent out by a lunatic-fringe thinktank, and were then quoted as ‘scientists who reject global warming’. But delusionism on the science of global warming is pretty much dead, even if it maintains a zombie existence in the columns of the Sun-Herald and the fringes of the blogosphere. The main line of argument now is that, granted that global warming is real, we should do nothing about it, at least for the next few decades.

So, another talking point from ten years ago has surfaced. The factual basis is that, back in 1997, the US Senate passed, by 95-0, the (non-binding) Byrd-Hagel resolution, which stated that the US should not sign an agreement at Kyoto unless it included emissions targets for developing countries. Later that year, the Clinton Administration went ahead and negotiated the Kyoto protocol without first-round targets for developing countries, but did not submit it for ratification.

This ten-year old vote is being cited today, most recently in the Shergold report (the PMs Task Group on emissions trading) as evidence that the US will never ratify Kyoto, or, more generally, an agreement that imposes more stringent requirements on developed countries like the US than on China and India. This isn’t quite as silly as Andrew Bolt quoting the Oregon petition, but it isn’t a whole lot better.

It’s reasonable enough to cite Byrd-Hagel as evidence that, as of 1997, the US Senate was unlikely to ratify an agreement like Kyoto. But ten years is a long time. Even if the Senate had never addressed the issue again, it would be a bit silly to refer to this vote as conclusive evidence on how Kyoto is viewed today. But in fact, of course, the Senate has addressed the issue again. In 2003, the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which called for caps on emissions of greenhouse gases was defeated by 55-43, with strong opposition from the Bush Administration.

43 votes is a long way short of the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. On the other hand, the Senate looks a lot greener after the 2006 elections, and could be even more so after 2008. And a determined Administration, especially a newly-elected one, can usually swing a fair number votes. Maybe the US will ratify Kyoto after Bush goes, and maybe not. Either way, the evidentiary value of a non-binding resolution passed ten years ago is close to zero.

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  1. Hermit
    June 30th, 2007 at 22:34 | #1

    After 11 years Howard postpones carbon trading til 2012 yet suddenly decides to send the troops in to indigenous communities. State based mitigation schemes talk of clean coal and tree planting offsets, both questioned by experts. Maybe it’s time to accept all we will get is talk and tokenism. However there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Caltech suggests that only a third of claimed coal reserves are economically recoverable so that IPCC forcing scenarios are too dire; moreover complete lack of carbon constraints will only bring on the maximum warming of 2C a few decades earlier. Another prediction is that China will experience coal shortages within a few years. I think this means at worst we will be left with mushy glaciers and a severe energy crisis. If this theory holds up the US, Australia and China can only help make the world a bad place to live without actually destroying it.

  2. Helen
    July 1st, 2007 at 10:05 | #2

    The article on Liberal think tanks in this saturday’s AGE Good Weekend, by Guy Pearse, is also interesting. What with one thing and other I’m only half way through it.

    (I would have provided a link, but… Why is it that articles in the GW don’t seem to be easily available on the web? Usually I can google an article up pretty quickly, but with Good Weekend articles it’s a lottery. Since they’re longer and often bloggable, this is a pain in the bum.)

  3. July 1st, 2007 at 13:10 | #3

    i just finished the gw article, imagine my disillusionment at discovering special interest groups finance politicians and parties!

    i don’t despise the rich for using their money to get what they want- could hardly expect anything else. i don’t despise pollies who act for the rich to get what they want- could hardly expect anything else. i don’t despise the poor and ignorant for being unable to resist the rich and pollies, could hardly expect anything else.

    i don’t even despise the educated middle class who talk about these matters at great length but with no substantive result- they could lead the ‘horses’ to democracy and possibly save the world for the children of us all, but so difficult, really. and it might get in the way of promotion at work…

    it’s really hard to despise anyone, even though it seems clear that someone is letting down humanity.

    in the end, one is left with the suspicion that the many species we are obliterating will be joined by us, with no great delay.

  4. bemused
    July 1st, 2007 at 16:07 | #4

    JQ, I accept what you say about scientific consensus on global warming and the dubious nature of most of the scientists disputing it.
    But I don’t quite know what to make of Ian Plimer who appeared most recently on the ABC’s Science show here http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2007/1965996.htm
    Plimer is credible and has in the past shown great personal courage in taking on anti-science Christian fundamentalist nutters. (I think it bankrupted him!)
    Plimer leaves me with a degree of residual doubt.

    However, it is undeniable that fossil fuels are a finite resource and will inevitably continue to increase in price as they become less easy to extract. They also create massive air pollution which we would be better without. These are two very good reasons, independent of climate change, to alter our ways and move to cleaner ‘renewable’ energy sources.

    Consuming fossil fuels is like living off capital. When it is all exhausted, what then?

    We need to move to direct harvesting of the abundant energy supplied each day by the sun. In other words, living off the energy ‘current account’. There are many promising technologies being developed that together are capable of meeting all our energy needs. Some of these technologies are already in operation on a small scale and should be encouraged by governments.

    Global warming is merely one more argument to support what we should already be doing.

  5. July 2nd, 2007 at 09:26 | #5

    bemused – “We need to move to direct harvesting of the abundant energy supplied each day by the sun. In other words, living off the energy ‘current account’.”

    Agree here. The strange thing is that we have no objection to cultivating millions of sq kilometers to grow solar collectors to make our food however, to suggest that we use a small percentage of that area to generate power as well is considered odd.

    For some reason the conservatives have a fixed idea of a coal or nuclear powered white picket fence house with white christian inhabitants that drive oil fuelled SUVs to work, to make money to consume even more products made by slave labour in far distant lands.

    To suggest that this picture could or should be any different is considered heresy. Solar power for instance does not fit in this rosy picture however the perfect inhabitants eat solar powered food however this fact is usually glossed over.

  6. Ken Miles
    July 2nd, 2007 at 10:16 | #6

    Bemused, Ian Plimer should take the advice that he dishes out to creationists and try to publish his views (with supporting evidence) in the scientific literature.

    Also Plimer’s attacks on the creationists were pretty poor quality. See here and here for details.

  7. SimonJM
    July 2nd, 2007 at 11:58 | #7

    Armies must ready for global warming role: Britain

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070625/sc_nm/climate_security_dc_1;_ylt=ArSyZp9mlMOYuetkB.7VFi1rAlMA

    Maybe since we are more adverse to losses if we pointed out the security concerns that would put our econmic well being at risk that may move mountains. That or a few more uber disasters.

    I wonder regarding Plimer whether geology creates a methodological/knowledge bias -that they are so used to studying geological time scales and forces that they are unable to factor in human factors or time scales- or is says something about specialization in science that even if you are qualified in one scientific field gone are the days that your opinion on areas outside your field count for much. Or a bit of both?

  8. jquiggin
    July 2nd, 2007 at 12:02 | #8

    I read Plimer’s book on evolution when it came out and was very disappointed for the reasons indicated in the review Ken cites. As you say, bemused, he showed plenty of courage in this debate. Unfortunately, though, his judgement was poor, and I think this is evident as regards GW.

  9. Razor
    July 3rd, 2007 at 11:42 | #9

    “As regards passive smoking, for example, I don’t suppose anyone seriously believes that breathing cigarette smoke is harmless. But since all good rightwingers oppose regulation to restrict smoking, and are (mostly) unwilling to simply come out and say that nonsmokers should put up with the risk associated with other people’s smoke”

    I’m a right-winger and a pretty good one at that and I used to smoke. I now believe that virtually all tobacco products should be banned and applaud the banning of smoking in public places.

    Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

  10. jquiggin
    July 3rd, 2007 at 17:13 | #10

    Razor, rather than telling me where to stick things, I suggest you visit the comments threads of some RWDB blogs (Club Troppo has a list) announce your support for smoking bans and come back with a report on your reception.

  11. July 5th, 2007 at 10:02 | #11

    I have commented at length on the Plimer interview on my blog, see http://www.frogworth.com/stuart/blog/?p=88

    To sum up – I don’t find his claims that humans are not causing climate change to be convincing.

  12. observa
    July 6th, 2007 at 01:02 | #12

    Fairly adamant stuff on the smoking Razor. Should I be allowed to set up “Puffing Billys” restaurant chain with clear warnings they are specifically for smokers and employ smokers in them? Non-smokers can come to work and play if they choose to ignore the well explained health risks, just like smokers do with tobacco health warnings. Presumably most entrepreneurs would set up strictly non-smoking restaurants to cater for the mainstream demand.

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