Friday, April 11, 2014

Is it OK to Lie to Save the Earth ??

An interesting article was published a few days ago in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, "Information Manipulation and Climate Agreements". This one seeks to analyze the so-called information manipulation in climate science. (You can probably not access it without paying for it or going through a University license like me... but you can read the abstract)

Now I have not paid much attention to the climate change/global warming discussion. And the literature trail that I followed gave me some things to write about. 

The modern form of conservationism arose to use resources in a way that is sustainable, an idea pioneered right at home in India although by the British (Sir Dietrich Brandis, considered the father of tropical forestry) trying to maximize long term profits from plantations and forest logging. This seems to me the most rational motivation for conservationism. It was used to protect nature from wanton destruction caused by human activities. First widely implemented in the United States by Theodore Roosevelt and followed by most of the world, national parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves have become an acceptable way to preserve natural treasures in all its serenity. I agree... there are objects, natural and biological, which are far too fragile to trust to people's good manners. More systematic and idiot proof ways to protect the environment are required. But inevitably, again spearheaded by America, conservationism has evolved... on to a distinct more radical breed... Environmentalism

Conservationism seeks to protect nature from destructive tendencies of short sighted individuals, so that current and future generations can continue to benefit from the natural bounty in a responsible and sustainable manner. Environmentalism, however, claims that nature is sacred, and mankindghkjfsd is a parasite, infecting the earth and consuming nature from within. It seeks to protect nature, not from man's destructive tendencies, but from man himself.

Might need some background info about the 2012 US presidential race, but too good a joke to be left out.

Naturally, I object.Mankind is not a plague on the Earth. Nature is not a peaceful serene Gaia that we are here to rape. We are products of nature and as such, a lot of our tendencies are but natural... including the urge to expand and procreate until we are the dominant species on the planet. Every species that has come before us, from dinosaurs to trilobites to chimpanzees would do the same. When lions dominate an ecosystem, they eat everything they can find. Their population grows. Soon there are too many lions and not enough food, so the lions start starving to death until a balance of prey and predator is created. But we are not trilobites or lions, we are smarter, stronger, more compassionate, more creative, more ambitious. Our potential to destroy is far greater than that of lions, but so is our potential to create. We don't want to go through those cycles... ruin our ecosystem and then starve to death till we reach a balance. We should be smart enough to figure out a balance and approach it asymptotically without going through crises. Hence conservationism. So yes, we need to find a way to harmonize with the ecosystem without going through cruel natural cycles of destructive recalibration. But that does not mean that nature is God and we are the root of all evil. The difference might seem only theoretical, but the practical difference of the two approaches are not inconsequential.

I personally think if global warming is indeed a problem, then the way to tackle it would be to pursue research to find ways to develop technologies that are not polluting or disturbing the ecosystem. Progressive sustainable Conservationism, rather than short sighted exploitation. Radical environmentalism, however, would encourage us to reduce consumption rather than innovate... decrease or eliminate our footprint on the world. Saving water or not wasting food, seems a great idea from a personal point of view... efficiency is always good and something we should all strive towards... but it is not really a solution to anything.
Unless we were ready to establish some kind of hard limit on world population and set all industry back a hundred years, there is simply no way cutting back on consumption can have any meaningful impact on the future. Eventually the demand for all these resources will out scale supply. Maybe we will delay the energy/water crisis by a couple of years, but truthfully nothing would be gained by such a delay. The only way to tackle the problem is by finding technological solutions. In fact, I think we already possess the technology to alleviate a lot of the pressure on the water and air pollution and energy problems of the world. The rate determining step seems to me to be the political inertia, corporate power and public ignorance, all of which would more likely be removed by reaching, not delaying the aforementioned crisis.

For e.g research in finding energy efficient solution to lighting is useful. We might be able to find fluorescent light which cut energy usage to half and that research might eventually lead to, say bioluminiscent lighting, which do not use energy from the fossil fueled grid. These innovations would solve our energy crisis in a way which telling people to turn off lights never can. The number of people and the value of lighting will out scale supply regardless of how many people learn to switch off lights. It is good discipline to not waste energy, but it is not some all important commandment that will lead to our salvation. 

Anyways, after that rant, we come back to why I wrote this post. I have often wondered if the widespread conceptions about climate saving and global warming are just too simplistic and misappropriated. It is pretty eye catching to say a polar bear dies every minute or Mt Everest will be beach resort in 5 years, and I have occasionally wondered if that is why it is said so. But I reserve judgement here, I do not know the facts about these claims. That is why I found this recent publication interesting. It has created a minor ruffle in the scientific circles. The article claims to be impartially analyzing the effect of information manipulation on global warming.
  • First the article gives multiple instances when global warming and climate change threats were exaggerated by scientific reporting agencies.
  • Then it goes on to evaluate the effect of such information manipulation on actual effort to combat climate change via a mathematical game-theory-like model. 
  • The final conclusion of the model, they say, is that if global warming is not as severe as the exaggerations, then the exaggerations serve to scare the people into action and the net effect is positive, since the action would lead to aversion or mitigation of the problem. Therefore in this case, misrepresentation of facts "eventually increases the global welfare", they report. 
  • However if the effects of climate change are indeed severe, the negative effects of such manipulation, namely skepticism and doubt leading to inaction or protest, become significant. Therefore they report that the effect of lying is ambiguous in this case.
The opposite of global warming alarmism is retardation. Looking for trustable scientific documentation on global warming...
Naturally this incensed a bunch of people who were of the opinion that scientists are not supposed to manipulate information to achieve a particular agenda. If they did, they would lose the credibility that makes science better than all other pursuits. I agree. Science's job should be to tell the policymakers the truth. If the policymakers want to lie to the public to get shit done, I am totally fine with that, that's their job. Lying about scientific findings is dangerous and is almost always bad in the long run. You can hold the lie for a couple of years and perhaps win some battles, but the thing about scientific fact is that it can be verified and tested by anyone. Sooner or later, such misrepresentations tend to be caught and that overturns most of the battles that were won. 

So if global warming is indeed happening and a threat, I hope the scientists do not follow this paper!!

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