The Environmental Scam:
One Quick and Easy Response
by Sean Gabb
9th October 2018
Once you cut through their verbiage, the enemies of bourgeois civilisation have two demands. These are:
- Put me and my friends in charge of preferably a one-world government with total power over life and property; or, until then, or failing that,
- Give us a lot of money.
When I was younger, the occasion for making these demands was something to do with poverty or economic instability, and the alleged need was for a bigger welfare state, or state ownership of the means of production, or playing about with money to “move the aggregate demand curve to the right.” The nice thing about these claims and their alleged solutions was that they all had to be debated within the subject area of Economics. Because most of us knew a lot about Economics, we could always win the debates.
By the end of the 1980s, winning was so easy, the debates had become boring. Since then, the alleged need has shifted to saving the planet from some environmental catastrophe. The resulting debates are now harder to win because most of us are not that learned in the relevant sciences. Though I am more than competent in Economics, my main expertise is in Ancient History and the Classical Languages. Much the same is true for most of my friends.
Take, for example, the latest occasion for making the two demands stated above. This is that the sea is filling up with waste plastic, and that this looks horrid, and is being eaten by the creatures who live in the sea, and that they are all at risk of dying – and that this will be a terrible thing of all of us. For the solution, see Annie Leonard, writing in The Guardian: “Recycling alone will never stem the flow of plastics into our ocean. We must address the problem at the source.” You can take her last sentence as shorthand for the usual demands.
What response have I to this? Not much directly. Give me half an hour, and I will explain with practised ease that the Phillips Curve is at best a loose correlation between past variables, and that there is no stable trade-off between unemployment and inflation. But search me how most plastics are made, how long they take to degrade, or what harm they do if eaten.
A short search on the Web has brought up some useful information. There is, for example, an essay by Kip Hansen, published in 2015 – “An Ocean of Plastic.” He says, among much else:
- That the Great Garbage Patch said to be floating about the Pacific is a myth, and that the main alleged photographs of it were taken in Manila Bay after a storm had washed the rubbish out of the streets;
- That the amount of plastic waste floating in the sea is very small per cubic metre of water, and that it is invisible to the uninformed eye in the places where this Garbage patch is said to be floating;
- That plastic waste quickly breaks down into tiny chunks that are then eaten by bacteria, who are not harmed by it;
- That larger chunks eaten by fish and birds are easily handled by digestive systems that have evolved over many ages to cope with much worse than the occasional piece of polystyrene foam.
The “floating rafts of plastic garbage”-version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a pernicious myth that needs to be dispelled at every opportunity.
That really is all I need to know. Of course, however, it is not enough to win an argument. Put me up against someone whose job is to lecture the world on the horrors of plastic waste, and I shall do a very poor job. He will pour scorn on the response I have summarised. He will draw attention to other alleged facts, and support these with reams of official statistics collected I have no idea how. We shall be engaged not in a deductive argument about the science of human choice, but in an argument about facts that I am in no position to examine for myself, and about scientific claims that I am not remotely qualified to assess. What to do about that?
Here is my response. During the past half century or so, we have had one factual claim after another about the natural world. These include:
- The claim my English teacher repeated to me in 1974 about the coming exhaustion of mineral resources – that, for example, there would be no more gold to mine after 1984, and that the oil would run out shortly after or before then;
- The claim, made around 1986, that aids would, by 1990, have killed two million people in England alone;
- The claim, made in 1996, that, by 2006, a million people in England would have had their brains rotted by eating beef infected with Mad Cow Disease;
- The claims, made in the 1980s, that factory emissions were turning the rain to acid, and that this would do terrible things;
- The claims, made about the same time, that our refrigerators and air conditioning units had opened a hole in the ozone layer, and that we would all soon be cooked by radiation from the Sun;
- The claims, that I noticed in 1989, that areas of jungle the size of Belgium were being regularly cut down in the Amazon, and how this would be bad for us;
- The claims, made since about 1988, that our industrial civilisation as a whole was causing a rise in global temperatures.
I leave the last of these claims aside for the moment. What the others all have in common is that they involved predictions of substantial or total collapse unless the usual demands were met. These demands were not met, and the world carried on as normal. Gold and oil did not run out. I am not sure how many people have heard about the ozone hole. I am not sure if anyone now claims it is getting bigger, or is still there. Nothing substantial was ever done about acid rain, but the world has still not become a giant desert. None of my friends has died of aids, nor of Mad Cow disease. My South American students do not report that Brazil nowadays looks like the surface of the Moon.
I now turn to the claims about global warming. I will not discuss the intricacies of how much carbon dioxide we are releasing, or what effect this may have on temperatures. I leave aside the persistent claims of scientific fraud and other corruption. As said, I am not qualified to comment on these or other matters. What I do note is that, in 2006, Al Gore
[p]atiently, and surely for the 10,000th time, [explained to The Guardian] what’s going wrong. The atmosphere is like a coat of varnish around the globe, he says. When it’s thin, as it should be, heat naturally escapes. But when it gets thicker, thanks to carbon dioxide emitted by us, it traps in the heat and the world gets warmer. “It’s cooking and wilting the most vulnerable parts of the eco-system, melting all the mountain glaciers, the north polar ice cap, parts of Antarctica, parts of Greenland.” That molten ice-water will raise sea-levels, flooding food-producing areas that all of us rely on. Eventually it will submerge whole cities, from San Francisco to Shanghai. The site of the Twin Towers will not be a memorial garden: it will be underwater.
… He agrees with the scientists who say we have 10 years to act, before we cross a point of no return.
In 2009, the Prince of Wales – advised by the “leading environmentalists Jonathon Porritt and Tony Juniper” – said we had 96 months to change our ways. After that, we faced “irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse, and all that goes with it.”
In 2005, George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian:
Winter is no longer the great grey longing of my childhood. The freezes this country suffered in 1982 and 1963 are – unless the Gulf Stream stops – unlikely to recur. Our summers will be long and warm. Across most of the upper northern hemisphere, climate change, so far, has been kind to us.
Ten years took us to 2016. Assuming my arithmetic is correct, 96 months take us to about now. If we have really reached the “point of no return,” why have these people not yet switched to telling us “I warned you: now it’s too late”? Instead, the apocalyptic warnings continue at top volume. Oh – and English weather remains as unpredictable today as it was in 2005. In March this year, there was an inch of snow in Deal.
The point of repeating these claims is that they were not random assertions, but appear to have been made on scientific advice – scientific advice that turned out to be wrong. Whether the scientists in question were lying, or whether they advised in good faith, is less important than that they were wrong. You do not need a degree in the natural sciences to notice when predictions are falsified. It is with this in mind that I take the present claims of plastic waste in the sea, and reject them out of hand. It may be that, this time, the claims are true. But the whole burden of proof is on those making them. The burden of proof comes with the barely-rebuttable presumption that we are being fed yet another diet of alarmist falsehoods.
My general view is that our planet is a vast treasure house of resources that, properly used, will take us to the stars. We shall colonise the inner planets, and mine the Asteroid Belt. We shall find cures for every illness and extend our lives. We shall uncover every remaining mystery of the natural world. During the past three centuries, much encouraging progress has been made. The curve is now turning almost vertical. It may be that, now and again, our scientific and technical progress throws up problems. If so, the solution is more scientific and technical progress. The only reasonable fear we should have is that the usual suspects will have their way, and return us to a past that I am fully qualified to describe, and that I assure you was horrible in every respect.
If the entire North Polar ice cap were to melt, unless my understanding of physics is badly flawed, it would make no difference whatever to sea levels.
My corner of South East England has, at various times in its past, been a tropical jungle and been buried under half a mile of ice. Climates change. That’s what they do. We must do as all creatures have done since the dawn of creation – adapt or die.
And only energy that environmentalists oppose can help us. Yes, ‘only’; the set of things they’re against is precisely the set of things that are good, because that’s how they decide what to be against. Standard example: they’re against renewable energy if it actually works for human ends, namely hydroelectric. (Not that I think renewable vs. not is a useful designation, but you know, to use their own word and hold them to their own standards…)
The ozone hole issue was a big deal back when I was at school (mid 80s) and I heard about it and followed it largely through New Scientist.
As I recall, The Antarctic (and, to a lesser extent, the Arctic) ozone holes are a naturally occurring seasonal phenomenon BUT there was and is very strong evidence that widely used (at the time) halons and CFCs made the holes much bigger and longer lasting than they would otherwise be. The holes were growing so much larger and longer lasting, in fact, that they threatened to cover populated areas for extended periods of time and expose the human populations and other organisms in those areas to a long term toxic level of UV. Note also that “hole” should be taken to read “area of significantly increased depletion”, but the effect on UV and thus the biological effect on ground level organisms is nevertheless real.
In fact worldwide, concerted, avoiding action was taken about the ozone hole. The Montreal Protocol was agreed in 1987 and its practical worldwide implementation has been successful in reducing releases of ozone depleting chemical (halons and CFCs mainly, as I understand it). And, yes, the ozone hole (or area of significantly increased depletion) is now reducing in size, essentially as the models expected. The science turned out to be correct.
Worldwide, we are all living with the results of the laws put in place as a result of the Montreal Protocol. This is why fridges are supposed to be degassed at specialist facilities (fridges used to use ozone depleting coolants). It is why pressurised spray cans no longer use the same propellants as they did pre-Montreal Protocol. It is why only trained and registered individuals or facilities can re-gas car aircon systems. It is why gaseous fire suppression systems (such as ‘halon’ flood fill systems) no longer use certain gases. And so on.
If we don’t hear much about the ozone hole (or holes) in non-scientific media any more it is because the problem was recognised, because worldwide avoiding action was taken (notably without costing too much), and because the problem was essentially fixed (or at least the trajectory of the issue is now one that is moving substantially in the right direction). The science (and the predictions based upon it) turned out to be correct.
This doesn’t invalidate your point, that a great many ecological threats of doom have been made which have turned out to be untrue within the claimed timeframes despite little or no corrective action being taken (or even being reasonably possible). It’s just that, in the specific case of the ozone hole issue, corrective action was feasible (both practicably and economically), corrective action was actually taken worldwide (mainly, I suspect, because it was economically feasible), and the problem is now being successfully fixed.
Here is a sceptical reply to your points: https://www.heritage.org/environment/commentary/ozone-the-hole-truth
Science is not (or should not be!) about non-scientific opinion pieces like this. It’s about peer reviewed evidence. Like it or not, the overwhelming evidence was and is that the threat from ozone depletion was real and that worldwide action prevented it from becoming an actual danger. He quotes an Al Gore book but no sane person would take non-scientific faction (for want of a better word) like anything Al Gore wrote seriously.
As for global climate change (aka global warming), the science genuinely does seem less clear on this. There is substantive doubt about the social/political consensus (I won’t call it a scientific consensus) and observed natural processes have been continuing for long enough (since before ozone depletion came to public attention in the mid to late 1980s) to see that reality is not fully matching predictions.
The principles of science in relation to global warming/anthropogenic climate change are, in my view, often being ignored due to social/political/peer pressure that, it seems to me, did not occur with ozone depletion.
Libertarians are right to be sceptical but neither should we ignore science or claim it is all false. Major, world-changing disasters are rare but (a) they do occur and (b) there is no fundamental reason and no practical reason why hey cannot occur due to human action. Science is the best and only tool we have to detect or predict such risks and so it is foolish to deny all such possibilities. Sometimes science gets it wrong, sometimes science gets it right; it’s still the best we’ve got.
Ignorance of science and denial of science and denial technological achievement are growing in popularity (e.g. Moon landings were a hoax, nothing can fly in space, aircraft are all fake, etc.). This is, I believe, a threat to society in the longer term. We libertarians should know better than to fall for such lack of wisdom and self-enforced ignorance.
Yes, we can and should question science (that is in fact the scientific way) but we must use the tools of science to do so.
This is why I accept that the ozone depletion threat was very real, was largely caused by human action, and was fixed by human action. It was undoubtedly within a scale that humans could influence. That is to say, the best statistics and information available now seem to indicate that this was the case in the absence of any other plausible scientific theory that shows it all (or any substantive part of it) to be incorrect.
And this is also why I doubt the full claims about anthropogenic climate change. I think there is little doubt that the climate is changing in substantive ways (not necessarily getting warmer on a localised basis) but (a) I am utterly unconvinced that this is substantially caused by human action, and (b) I think it does not matter now anyway. Trying to undo this change (however it may be caused) by de-industrialising is inhuman and wholly destructive; it will only harm our ability to cope with what is now inevitable climate change.
I meant to add here that sometimes this will mean that we will have to accept truths that we don’t like, that go against our political or moral preferences or instincts. Reality is what happens whether or not you believe in it. This is where the objectivity of science (when it is working properly) should be a lesson to us: Our favourite theory has to be rejected without emotion if it conflicts with the evidence in front of us.
This is not to say that science alone should be a political decision maker. That would be a route to inhuman utilitarianism. But, all the same, we cannot deny what is reasonably proven (as far as the current evidence shows it to be real). And sometimes we need to take the time to fully understand the scientific principles involved (something which politicians or economists are often not patient enough to do or intellectually capable of doing) to know whether or not the prevailing scientific theories are right.
Note, I am not referring to anthropogenic climate change/global warming in particular when I say any of this. I am referring to all scientific theories that we may need to evaluate in relation to political/moral issues.
And yes, when a scientific theory is proven to be false (because its predictions do not come true in the claimed timeframe) then it should be rejected — until corrected or replaced. It’s very important to understand that rejecting a theory does not mean that the theory is wholly incorrect. It may be that it needs to be modified with new information. Rejection of a theory due to lack of completeness or timeframe issues does not necessarily mean that it is wholly disproven.
Well, actually… I think non-scientists in general should care about global warming about as much as they should care whether a species is a seal or a sealion, i.e. they can take and interest if they want, but you know…
“Is global warming still happening or not?”, or even “do fossil fuels cause it or not?” isn’t the right question. The right question is: are fossil fuels good or not.
Alex Epstein has said he is “proudly uninterested” in climate science. Not that he thinks knowing less stuff is ever preferable to knowing more stuff, of course, but that he had the clarity of thought to rise above arguing about the numbers and see what the real issues are. And that’s a thing to be proud of.
I am not saying your conclusions are incorrect, and I am certainly not qualified to do so. BUT – just because the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer has receded since Montreal, that does not necessarily prove cause and effect. Might it be co-incidence? I observe this all the time – two unrelated events occur in quick succession, and it is automatically assumed that the one has caused the other. I always question this approach.
No. In the case of resource depletion, the first bullet point in the article, it’s not that their prediction didn’t happen yet, it’s that their entire theory of resources is wrong. Julian Simon is the economist to read here.
Good essay, Sean. You are right to mention that the burden of proof is (should be) on those making the claims. But that is not how the greens play ball. In environmental matters they have contrived to invert the burden of proof, which now lies with the “hazard creator” rather than with the regulator. Gone is any idea of “innocent until proven guilty.”
And then there is the closely associated perversion of the precautionary principle, which governments and activists have cleverly carried out over the decades. From “look before you leap” to “create an impetus to take a decision notwithstanding scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risk” is all but a complete inversion of the principle. They have moved the goalposts from “do not take action unless you are sure the benefits will exceed the costs” to “you must take action, even if the costs and benefits cannot even be calculated!”
Very true, Neil, but I think it goes deeper than that. Environmentalists implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, reject principles of the scientific method such as falsification and null hypothesis testing.
Take particulate matter, which I think we have discussed before. The precautionary principle requires action against this menace, which claims the lives of some such invented number as 72.4 children per year. And how do we know that it is a hazard? Because the linear dose-response relationship favoured by the precautionary principle tells us that there is no safe level of exposure no matter how small.
A perversion of the scientific method.
“THE DEBATE IS OVER! GLOBAL WARMING IS HAPPENING, AND WE ARE TO BLAME!.” Thus boomed the headlines on the 6 o’clock news some years ago. At that point I realised that we were dealing not with science, but with a new religion.
Not a very good religion – all hellfire and no promise of heaven.
If you are explaining, you are losing.
It’s possible to win the environmental debate every time, not by jumping through the hoops environmentalists want us to, but by grabbing the hoop away from them. Make them justify their views.
You can learn this in a single video: [anything by Alex Epstein with ‘framing’ or ‘reframing’ in the title, or ‘arguing to 100’ which is his term for not playing defense].
Although of course it does help to also know the science, energy science much more than climate science. The Power Hour (powerhour.alexepstein.com) episode with Steffen Henne is good.
I’d like to add
Isaac Arthur’s Outward Bound series actually covers colonising everything, up to and including the Sun, and
apart from precious metals, ‘mining the Asteroid Belt’, by people who know what they’re talking about, mainly is about building things in space, not bringing them back – not that you said otherwise, but it’s a common misconception.