The last of the sceptics

As the formal release of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change draws nearer, quite a few skeptics have been going public to say that the evidence is now overwhelming. Here, for example, is Michael Shermer, who, appropriately enough, writes the Skeptic column for the Scientific American. He’s no fan of eco-alarmism, but he is a skeptic in the true sense of the term – someone who demands convincing evidence but is willing, when presented with such evidence to change their views. And here’s Sir David Attenborough.

There may still be a few more such announcements to come. But it’s clear by now that the evidence is more than enough to convince genuine sceptics. Those who refuse to accept overwhelming evidence are more correctly described as denialists.

If the accumulation of evidence isn’t enough to convince former ‘sceptics’ to change their tune, how about the embarrassment of being associated with the clown show that is denialism in 2006? To take a few of many examples, how about:

* The Lavoisier Institute’s Bob Foster, predicting global cooling on the basis of work done by well-known astrologer (and all-round cycle crank), the late Theodor Landscheidt;

* The Competitive Enterprise Institute ad campaign on the theme ‘CO2: they call it pollution, we call it Life!’; or

* ‘long range weather forecaster’ (ahem) Ken Ring, who says that “CO2 is also nearly twice as heavy as air (molecular weight 44, that of air 29) so it cannot rise anywhere beyond haze level of a couple of hundred feet.” His work is published by the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition (via Tim Lambert?

At least Ring and Landscheidt are or were sincerely deluded. The same can’t be said of the CEI, which is at the centre of the dark nexus between global warming denialism and the tobacco lobby, symbolised by people like Stephen Milloy, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer.

Of course, not all the scientists who accept the evidence on global warming are sensible. Given that there are thousands of scientists working on the topic, this is inevitable. There may even be some as silly as the examples listed above (though I’m not aware of any). But take them away and you still have thousands of serious scientists and tens of thousands of papers supporting the scientific side of the argument. Take away the Lavoisier Institute, CEI and the rest from the anti-science side and you have nothing.

In this context, it’s interesting to note a failed attempt by Ron Bailey to split the difference, counterposing the CEI ads and Al Gore’s presentation of An Inconvenient Truth. While he’s taken some pretty dubious stances, Bailey has more concern for his credibility than the clowns mentioned above, and, after taking a hammering for his obfuscation, he quickly recognised that the CEI was truly indefensible.

147 thoughts on “The last of the sceptics

  1. Dogz, Maybe your parents knew something that’s dangerous for you to forget.

    Try googling ‘genetic’ and “chernobyl” and then click on “images”. But be warned, the pictures aren’t pretty.

    Chernobyl didn’t end the world. There is still plenty left of the world to be contaminated by the results of other reactor accidents.

    Now that’s a risk that you and I may be prepared to take. But the children in those pictures were never consulted. They hadn’t been born yet.

    You may well argue that the burning of fossil fuels is productive of equally serious consequences. And I would say that I am coming to the conclusion that you may be correct.

    You may well argue that the burning of fossil fuels is essentially benign. I would express some scepticism and ask whether you are supporting the development of nucleur power as a stalking horse to justify business as usual.

    Until the hypothetical arrival of controllable fusion energy, it seems that the world will not have access to an energy source which is as stable and has as high a calorific value per unit of weight as our various fossil fuels.

    The unavoidable conclusion would appear to be that for the foreseeable future the world will pay more and get less bang for its buck from its energy supplies.

    Among almost countless changes Australians will have to get over their love of McMansions and start riding a bike to work.

    Dogz, this is a world that your parents probably couldn’t imagine around the time that you were conceived.

  2. Katz, all Chernobyl does is confirm that communism is a complete failure. But we knew that already.

    Tom Davies: I have no idea what nuclear accident could destroy the Earth. I suspect none could. But I can’t assign zero probability to it happening, because of the “unknown unknowns”. But that’s in the same category as carbon nanotubes or any other unknown technology destroying the Earth – exceedingly unlikely.

  3. Yet more disingenuousness Dogz.

    True, more Antonovs have fallen out of the air than Boeings. Soviet engineering being what it was.

    But Boeings have been known to crash.

    I’m using the airliner analogy to suggest that no political system is immune from human and technical error.

    Which leads to the unavoidable question for nuclear apologists:

    How many crashed superior western-style nuclear reactors constitute acceptable losses?

  4. How many crashed superior western-style nuclear reactors constitute acceptable losses?

    None on the scale of Chernobyl. But you see, here in the West we have this quaint notion of government accountability. It works because we have an independent media that (by-and-large) likes to report the things our government doesn’t want reported and our politicians like being re-elected, so they tend to avoid doing things like approving construction of really crappy reactors that would come to the attention of the media.

    I can’t promise you that a Chernobyl will never happen in the West, but you can be confident that the chances of it happening are very much lower.

  5. 1. The week or so secrecy imposed on news about Chernobyl by the Soviet government had very little impact on the damage done and the continuing danger of nuclear fallout. That damage was instantaneous and irreversible.

    2. “I can’t promise you that a Chernobyl will never happen in the West, but you can be confident that the chances of it happening are very much lower.” AGREED. But acceptably less likely? US insurance companies think not.

  6. RE #1: I was refering to the role of western media in ensuring Chernobyls are not built in the first place, not their role in reporting disasters once they have occurred.

    RE #2: Round and round again. US insurers don’t think the probability of a western Chernobyl is unacceptably high. They just don’t know what the probability is because their sample size is too small (zero). That’s going to be true of any generating technology that a) has the potential for large scale destruction, yet b) has been constructed well enough in practice such that no large-scale catastrophic events have occured.

    The only way out of the dilemma is to either

    a) build a gazillion superfulous plants in the hope that a few eventually explode so we can collect better statistics; or

    b) never use any technology that has such a potential for large scale destruction, no matter how safe we make it; or

    c) use the technology while continually improving safety.

    Not sure anyone would advocate a). Obviously I go for c).

  7. Erny: Indeed, I am surprised you say what you say because you have already stated your policy recommendation on this thread when you wrote: “As for nuclear, I say remove any restrictions and let nuclear live or die by the market. � It seems to me, there aren’t many who volunteer to die for your beliefs.

    What are you talking about? My position is perfectly consistent and perfectly clear. As stated above — remove restrictions and let the market decide. You have no reason to be surprised.

  8. Dogz Says:

    It works because we have an independent media that (by-and-large) likes to report the things our government doesn’t want reported and our politicians like being re-elected, so they tend to avoid doing things like approving construction of really crappy reactors that would come to the attention of the media.

    This is just so incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid, that words begin to fail me.

    Politicians would never approve a tunnel project that caused an apartment block to fall into it would they?

    Politicians would never refuse funding for a levee that would prevent the loss of an entire city would they?

    Politicians would never ignore a document titled Bin Laden determined to strike in US would they?

  9. Dogz,

    “So to me, anyone who claims we need a second Earth to mitigte the risk of nuclear energy use must believe that the probability of destruction is significant. Hence my remarks.”

    I accept your statement as an explanation of your remark. However, I don’t accept your remark as a criticism of my argument because the question was not what “mitigates the risk of nuclear energry” but the question was: Under which conditions is complete insurance against the negative externalities of nuclear power possible. I have provided a sufficient condition (a second planet earth). You have provided none.

  10. Dogz, my point is that fusion is not a certain technology, over any time frame. It is very unclear that containing, managing, and sustaining the volumes of ultra-hot fusion plasma needed to generate industrial amounts of electricity is even technically possible, let alone economic.

    If you are going to argue that fusion might work in a few hundred years or so, I could argue that by then (and probably a lot sooner) we will have some pretty impressive renewable electricity generation and storage technology, (Incidentally, storage not generation technology is probably the main technical barrier to the widespread success of renewable energy.)

    Or maybe we will have tweaked some existing microbes to produce vast amounts of ethanol or biodiesel, (and there is some interesting and very promising work going on in this area).

    If we can come up with a way to permanently render the by-products of nuclear reactors unusable as weapons grade material (and there may be ways to to do this: see Wikipedia article ‘Fast breeder reactor’), then I would seriously consider some nuclear power, but not until then.

  11. But that’s in the same category as carbon nanotubes or any other unknown technology destroying the Earth – exceedingly unlikely.

    What the hell does that mean? Carbon nonotubes aren’t an unknown technology. They were discovered in 15 years ago.

    Did anyone (apart from you) suggest that carbon nanotubes could destroy the earth? Did anyone (apart from you) suggest in this thread that anything could destroy the earth?

    My conclusions:

    – you like to argue

    – you exaggerate and lie

    – you don’t know much about the things you choose to argue about

  12. SJ, your debating style is to become increasingly abusive and personal over the course of the discussion. Far less than that has got me moderated in the past, but I guess you are on JQ’s side of the debate so he condones it.

    At any rate, there’s no point in me continuing to respond to your personal attacks.

    EG, your request for complete insurance against the risks of nuclear energy cannot be met. My point is just that that is not necessarily a reason not to pursure the nuclear option. Any new technology will have “unknown unknowns” – effects we don’t know about and hence potentially could cause catastrophic damage. Your position is essentially position b) in my response to Katz above (which is also Katz’ position as far as I can tell).

    Seeker – fine. My point about fusion was in response to an argument against nuclear along the lines of “aren’t we just postponing the problem – what do we do when the Uranium [and Thorium] run out?”. Since nuclear buys us several hundred years, fusion – and as you point out many other technologies – should be sufficiently well-developed by then for this not to be a concern.

  13. “Round and round again. US insurers don’t think the probability of a western Chernobyl is unacceptably high”

    We go round again because you’re confabulating again.

    State Farm had TWO grounds for refusal of coverage.

    You are acknowledging only ONE of them.

    Now why might that be?

    And, Jeepers, where was our free press when the Collins Class Sub was being built? Maybe they have an excuse: they couldn’t hear themselves think over the racket made by the “silent” engines of the Little aussie White Elephant.

  14. Katz I am not confabulating. I agree there are two grounds for refusal of coverage. It is unknown probability plus catastrophic outcome that bothers the insurers. Unknown probability of inconsequential outcomes don’t matter. And known probabilities of catastrophic outcomes also “don’t matter”, in the sense that the insurance companies can calculate the price of the premium in that case (which may itself be unacceptably high but that’s another matter).

    But that doesn’t mean US insurers think the probability of a western Chernobyl is unacceptably high, as you claim. It means they don’t know the probability of a western Chernobyl, and the outcome is too catastrophic for them to take the risk.

    There were plenty of negative media reports about the Collins sub while it was being built. I’m not sure that Joe public cared. They sure would care about reports of a dangerous reactor.

  15. SJ, as I’ve said earlier in this thread, no personal attacks please.

    Dogz, rather than making claims of hypocrisy, you might consider the possibility that I have better things to do than monitor long-running comments threads on a minute-by-minute basis.

    Everyone, I think it might be better to move the discussion of nuclear issues to the post on this topic. That was my idea in posting it.

  16. 1. “It means they don’t know the probability of a western Chernobyl, and the outcome is too catastrophic for them to take the risk.”

    Finally!

    2. “There were plenty of negative media reports about the Collins sub while it was being built.”

    And yet nothing happened. Australia ended up with the world’s most expensive alarm clocks.

    So much for salvation Murdoch-style.

  17. Katz, since I haven’t changed my argument, I assume by “Finally!” you mean you finally understand 🙂

    If the press brings stuff to the attention of the public, and the public doesn’t care, that’s hardly the fault of the press. We get what we deserve.

    JQ, SJ has been a naughty boy this entire discussion. You disciplined him immediately that I raised it, so either you do monitor closely or my accusation of hypocrisy was enought to spur you into action.

  18. Dogz,

    Thank you for acknowledging that ‘complete insurance’ cannot be obtained (because there is no second earth). This means, a policy combination of advocating ‘the nuclear solution’ (to ‘save’ the earth from C02 emission enduced global warming) and ‘freedom of choice’ is non-sense unless ‘everybody in the world’ has your preferences. But this is not true because on this thread alone, at least two people have indicated that they would not be prepared to ignore the potential harm for future generations).

    You are incorrect in your presumption about my ‘position’. I used the theory of incomplete markets (of which complete markets is a special case) to check on the logical consistency of the policy proposal advocated by you (and others).

    The parallel argument, carried by Katz, on empirical observations about the behaviour of the insurance industry is compatible with my conclusion obtained from analytical economics concerned with non-dictatorial resource allocation.

  19. EG, why do you need all that theory? Complete insurance is rarely available for anything. It clearly was not available for the burning of fossil fuels, otherwise there’d be a great big greenhouse fund built-up into which we could dip to solve the CO2 problem.

    Absence of complete insurance is not a reason not to pursue a particular policy.

    Personally, I think not considering the nuclear option will cause irreparable harm to future generations. My irreparable harm cancels your irreparable harm, and we’re back to democracy.

  20. Dogz,

    “why do you need all that theory?”

    Because it is a cost-effective way for me to get clarity on what are the fundamental issues.

    “Complete insurance is rarely available for anything. It clearly was not available for the burning of fossil fuels, otherwise there’d be a great big greenhouse fund built-up into which we could dip to solve the CO2 problem.”

    You agree that market prices were, in some sense ‘wrong’..

    “Absence of complete insurance is not a reason not to pursue a particular policy. ”

    No, it is the ultimate reason for not pursuing the particular policy (nuclear to deal with CO2 emissions).

    “Personally, I think not considering the nuclear option will cause irreparable harm to future generations. My irreparable harm cancels your irreparable harm, and we’re back to democracy.”

    No. So far my personal preferences have not entered the discussion at all.

    The second part of your argument sounds like the old ‘utilitarianism’. Please consult the game theory literature which deals with ‘non-transferrable utility’.

  21. You agree that market prices were, in some sense ‘wrong’..

    If you demand that all externalities, even unknown ones, are factored into market prices then all market prices have the potential to be wrong. So what should we do? Prevent anyone from ever doing anything new because we can’t necessarily price all effects? Like I said way upthread, that may be a bureaucrat’s or luddite’s dream, but it ain’t going to cut it with the rest of us.

    Besides, what do you think the overall balance sheet for fossil-fuel burning looks like? Our access to cheap energy over the last 150 years has been the chief force driving modernization, and hence dramatic improvements in living standards. I’d say even with catastrophic global warming we still owe a lot to fossil fuel.

    No. So far my personal preferences have not entered the discussion at all.

    My remark was directed at your preferences or the preferences of those you quoted thus:

    ‘freedom of choice’ is non-sense unless ‘everybody in the world’ has your preferences. But this is not true because on this thread alone, at least two people have indicated that they would not be prepared to ignore the potential harm for future generations

  22. Dogz, you’re also on a warning. Calling me a liar/hypocrite is a good way to get yourself moderated again or barred permanently. If you don’t like the way I run the blog, please go elsewhere.

    Since no-one much took the hint, and we seem to be well into circular mode, I’m closing this one down.

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