Monday, June 16, 2008

WIRED: 10 green heresies

Wired News has encouraged the readers to rethink what it means to be "green" i.e. to save energy (and fossil fuels) and to be friendly to the environment.

Their list of their 10+1 "green heresies" contains the following entries:
  1. It is greener to live in the cities
  2. Air-conditioning is greener than heating
  3. Conventional agriculture beats organics
  4. Forests may cause warming
  5. China is the solution
  6. Genetic engineering may be great
  7. Carbon trading is a failure
  8. Nuclear power beats all other sources
  9. Used cars beat hybrids
  10. Climate change is inevitable
  11. CO2 is not everything (bonus)
The authors are trying to use their brains a little bit but they are still typical environmentalist activists who have clearly been brainwashed by all the popular nonsense about the "bad" CO2 emissions that can quantify the "sin" and similar stuff.

In order to make you sure that they're greens, let me quote the first sentence of the 11th entry as an example:
No one with any scientific sense now disagrees about the severity of the climate crisis.
The only severe thing about this statement is that it severely contrasts with reality. In reality, every person with elementary scientific education knows that the notion of "climate crisis" is pure bunk promoted by undereducated and overzealous pundits in the media that contradicts pretty much everything we know about the climate system and about the society.

Nevertheless, the green writers at Wired News are still way too insufficiently green for the Gentlemen at RealClimate.ORG. In fact, the latter environmentalist radicals were so irritated that they attacked Wired News in a text with a friendly name,
Wired Magazine’s Incoherent Truths.

The first proposition that Ray Pierrehumbert hated is that air-conditioning is better than heating, as far as the energy consumption goes. Matt Power writes some bizarre things about the power needed for cooling and I would bet that Pierrehumbert understands the physics of power and physics of heat in air-conditioners more than Power does. ;-)

But when it comes to their main conclusions, the situation changes dramatically. Power writes that the heating in a typical Northeast house creates 13,000 pounds of CO2 a year while the air-conditioning in a typical Phoenix dwelling produces 900 pounds. It is very bizarre to measure energy consumption in pounds of CO2 but let's use Power's fashionable units, anyway.

This overall comparison of the two typical houses is what matters at the level of the society. Air-conditioning in the U.S. households consumes less energy mainly because the average annual temperature outside the average house (15 °C? Or 10 °C in Czechia?) is well below the most comfortable temperature for humans (23 °C?).

Whether our technologies make it cheaper to heat up or cool down a liter of water by 1 °C is an interesting technological question but the key figures that are relevant for policymaking include a lot of other multiplicative factors that Pierrehumbert is completely unable (or unwilling) to see.

Because the air-conditioners consume much less energy than the heating systems in the U.S., by more than one order of magnitude, it is very clear that the energy that you would save on heating by a hypothetical "global warming" will clearly exceed the additional energy that your air-conditioners will have to consume.

The overall energy needed for heating and air-conditioning would obviously decrease if the outside temperature would increase - i.e. if it would approach the comfortable temperature for humans. This is a purely academic question because the amount of predicted warming, about 0.006 °C a year, changes the ratios of heating vs air-conditioning consumption 100 times less than other random factors, including the newest design of the devices or the evolution of the "hot" housing markets.

But academically speaking, the statement is true. Warming would reduce the overall energy spent for heating and cooling.

The same comment applies to people who freeze to death and to the victims of heat waves. Because many more people "freeze" than "melt" ;-), it is clear that a hypothetical warming would subtract the "freezing" people, add the "melting" people, and reduce the overall number of victims of inconvenient temperatures because the "subtraction" would numerically exceed the "addition".

Whether the existing air-conditioners are somewhat less efficient than the commercially sold heating systems is irrelevant. The latter is a physics question or an engineering question but it can have no direct implications for policymaking because the key question for policymakers is not about the 10%-like differences in the efficiency but about the overall energy that you have to spend for one purpose or another.

Treat forests like crops

Trees absorb carbon dioxide. Young trees do so more efficiently than old trees. Matt Power and Ray Pierrehumbert agree about this point but Pierrehumbert is still very angry. Why is it so? Well, I guess that it is because the first two words of Power's article are "Ronald Reagan's". ;-)

Fine, that's the actual reason. But how does Pierrehumbert explain that he is upset? He says, correctly, that the CO2 balance depends on the fate of the wood. Indeed, it does. If the wood is stored in the form of lasting products such as furniture and houses, the carbon atoms will disappear from the atmosphere for a longer time than if you transform the wood into something that decomposes (or burns) very quickly.

But once again, this question - which methods to use wood remove more carbon from the atmosphere - is a completely different question from the question whether forests treated as old monuments or forests treated as crops are more efficient absorbers of CO2. And the answer, correctly reproduced by Power, is that the trees-crops absorb more carbon.

Now, I don't think that the absorption of carbon is a "good thing" in any inherent sense and I would never cut a tree because of a similar "justification". But I can still think about these issues and Pierrehumbert cannot see the forest for the trees, literally speaking. If you treated trees like crops, a significant fraction of the wood would obviously end up as a long-lasting product. Power is right and Pierrehumbert is wrong to criticize Power. The fraction is pretty much well-known but if we really began to think that it is good to absorb carbon, our lifestyle could start to encourage particular ways to use wood.

Power is fundamentally right and Pierrehumbert's amusing comments about rot in his old Victorian house only subtract a few percent (per century) from Power's powerful observation. ;-) If your goal were to remove carbon from the atmosphere, you should grow plants that absorb as much CO2 as possible (e.g. young trees) and use them for as long-lasting applications as possible.

SUV vs used cars

OK, I didn't want to discuss this topic because when the oil price is close to USD 140 per barrel, it simply looks crazy to assume that a normal person wouldn't pay any attention to the fuel economy of his car. The actual money that you pay for gasoline is much higher than any conceivable damage that the resulting CO2 emissions could indirectly create through "global warming".

The people who don't have to save fuel and who want to read additional comments about the CO2 emissions of their cars are the very rich people who typically have many cars - and some of them have private jets, too. These people are buying Priuses or Prii ;-) in order to mask their trips by big cars and perhaps by their private jets (and many other regular commercial flights) and to feel good about their life. It is very clear that the more Prii these people have, the more they can morally "afford" to waste energy in other contexts. Consequently, Prii are bad.

So I would certainly leave the fuel economy to the invisible hand of the free markets because this hand is pretty powerful when the gasoline is at USD 4.00 a gallon. Please, only look how much you actually pay for energy, do not look at any other "environmental" numbers, and kindly inform those who look at them that they are morons. Incidentally, if you are afraid that the price will keep on climbing, you may pre-pay gasoline for the present prices from GasBankUSA.

Those chemicals that are used in batteries and other places when fancy cars are produced are almost certainly much more serious environmental issues than anything related to carbon dioxide.

But Matt Power's main argument is the following: while you consume energy if you drive a car, it takes a lot of energy to produce one, too. That's why the used cars may be more energy-efficient than the new cars, including fuel-efficient new cars.

Pierrehumbert doesn't like the argument. Why? Well, hybrids are obviously one of the sacred symbols of his movement and he doesn't like heretics who say anything bad about them. That's the true reason but Pierrehumbert can't reveal it openly. So how does he justify that he dislikes Power's valid argument about the energy cost of car production?

Well, Pierrehumbert is making almost the very same mistake as he did in the case of the old Victorian house. Recall that Pierrehumbert focused on rot in his house and on the decomposing napkins but he was unable to see that the rest of the wood in his house has survived for more than a century.

In this case, Pierrehumbert says that it doesn't help when you buy a used car because the previous owner has to buy a new car himself.

Pierrehumbert's reasoning is clearly falacious because the previous owner is deciding between used cars and Prii, too. If most of the people decide (or are encouraged) to use older cars rather than new cars, it is very clear that the average age of the car on the road will increase and the production of new cars - and the associated consumption of energy - will decrease.

If the previous owner decided to sell his used car and buy a new car - e.g. a new Prius - he was clearly acting against the recommendation by Matt Power. But Power's recommendation was addressed to all drivers, not just some of them, and those drivers who follow it are clearly helping to reduce the production of new cars and the associated waste of energy because they are increasing the "hotness" of the used cars.

Again, I certainly don't think that it is a sacred goal to reduce the production of new cars. 20% of the Czech economy is car production - we are the world's #1 country in car production per capita because we have just surpassed Slovakia that is now #2. ;-) But if I am asked to assume that it is a bad thing to consume energy, the energy consumed during car production is bad, too. And Power is right. It must be taken into account and in many cases, it will dominate the overall numbers.

Pierrehumbert as a symbol of the green inability to think

As Noam Chomsky wrote in 1957, colorless green ideas sleep furiously. He thought that the sentence didn't make sense but in 2008, it makes a lot of sense. The generic environmentalists are unable to think. Pierrehumbert is a great example of an intellectually deficient individual who have flooded the media, universities, political parties, and even some corporations. Let me mention two fallacies that are being repeated by these green brains all the time:
  1. The tendency to see a minor, irrelevant, small effect but not the major effects, the "bulk"
  2. The assumption of non-existing correlations that are used to subtract "inconvenient terms" and suppress "inconvenient correlations"
These entries may sound too abstract. So let me explain what I mean.

Externalities vs internalities

The first fallacy is often discussed under the name of "externalities". Externalities are consequences of an economic transaction for a third party. Environmentalists like to assume two wrong things about the externalities, namely that
  1. they are very important
  2. they are mostly negative
In reality, externalities are - almost by definition - less important than "internalities" even though the latter term is unfortunately not being used at all. If you buy a chocolate, the supermarket gets the money and you receive the chocolate. A child may also see a cute picture on the chocolate in your cart. That's an externality. But such effects influencing third parties are, almost by definition, less relevant than the "bulk" of the transaction itself.

Far-left people who love to speculate about communist myths such as the "inherent imperfections of the markets" and similar nonsense often like to see the irrelevant, small, additional effects but not the actual transaction. It is OK if these people are given a few bucks to play with (because we can afford to throw them out of the window) - another example of externalities - but it is usually a catastrophe if these people are allowed to influence (or control) whole companies or societies because they really have no idea about the "bulk" of all the relevant problems. They don't know the actual reasons and drivers of the human behavior. They don't know why things actually work.

Pierrehumbert has shown us this fallacy at least twice. In his discussion about the forests, he mentioned rot in his Victorian house, pretending that he had proven that all wood decomposes rapidly. However, he has forgotten the wood that has actually survived from the Victorian era. This quantity is both a majority of the wood used for houses as well as the critical quantity in the whole debate about old and new forests. Pierrehumbert is unable (or unwilling?) to see it.

Inventing non-existing correlations and cancellations

In the case of the used cars, he has made a related mistake. He didn't like Power's desacration of a religious symbol, the Prius. So he effectively said that if you buy a used car rather than a new Prius, it won't make a difference because the previous owner of the used car buys a new car, anyway. So his action will compensate yours.

The fallacy of this reasoning may also be described as the invention of correlations that do not exist in reality. In effect, Pierrehumbert assumes that if you decide that used cars are better than new cars, you will create another person who will decide that new cars are better than used cars.

This is clearly incorrect. The priorities of the other owners are clearly uncorrelated to your personal decisions. Power correctly assumes that there exists a quantity that measures how much people prefer the new cars over used cars or the other way around.

If people prefer new cars, a higher number of new cars is produced, no one wants certain used cars, and they are scrapped earlier. If people would begin to prefer the used cars, the average age of the car on the road will increase. The production of new cars would drop, together with the energy costs of this production.

If you are an average person who buys an average used car, the number of used cars on the road increases by the number N that is smaller than one - because the previous owner is likely to buy a new car - but that is smaller than zero, anyway - because this car could otherwise be scrapped (and the previous owner can buy another used car). Pierrehumbert showed an argument that N was smaller than one but he pretended that the argument meant that N was zero. That's wrong. N is somewhere between 0 and 1 but for most qualitative purposes, it is pretty much the same thing as we assume that it is 1, not 0. Power is qualitatively right, Pierrehumbert is qualitatively wrong.


The whole environmentalist ideology may be viewed as constant repetition of these two fallacies and several others. The greens identify some aspects of reality that are "holy" or, on the contrary, "evil", in the newest edition of their quasi-religion. And then they look for some links between these religious symbols on one side and "good" or "bad" things as understood by the sane people on the other side, in order to spread their quasi-religion.

It is always possible to find an effect (or a hypothetical effect) that links the "irrationally good" things with the "rationally good" things - or the "irrationally bad" things with the "rationally bad" things. Such an effect helps to propagate the quasi-religious symbols and it is routinely blown out of proportion (the greenhouse effect is the most popular example as of 2008).

However, there are also many other effects - including effects that correlate "irrationally good" things with "rationally bad" things and vice versa - that are inconvenient for the greens. So they use all kinds of logical fallacies, propaganda, and intimidation to hide all these inconvenient links. For example, the Sun and the turbulence of the oceans surely cannot influence the climate, can it? The wooden Victorian houses no longer contain any carbon and every used car on the road has a "twin" that is a new car. ;-)

The detailed character of the green holy symbols and the preferred effects that are used as weapons to impose the quasi-religion on the rest of the society is changing with time. But the inherent irrational and unscientific nature of the green ideology is a constant of motion.

And that's the memo.

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