Thursday, March 26, 2015

On “soft climate denial”, regionally-appropriate renewables and marginalizing potential allies in the climate change debate

While reading my Twitter feed I was recently introduced to a brand new label in the climate change discussion: “soft climate denial/denier”. The label, based on my admittedly limited research, appears to have been introduced to our lexicon by a person familiar to the readers of this blog, the inimitable Eric Doherty, “Transportation planner & @TankerFreeBC Transportation Campaigner”. It appears to be used to describe anyone, regardless of their stated opinions on climate change, who disagrees with the user’s preferred policy options for addressing climate change. The term is very interesting because, in my mind, it pretty much typifies all that is wrong with the politics of climate change in our modern Canadian society. Historically, political and environmental movements have sought to open up their tents to encourage like minds to join their causes. The basis for this was a recognition that in order to achieve gains in a modern, democratic society you need to convince a majority (or at least a plurality) of the population as to the righteousness of your cause. The modern environmental movement, however, seems to have mostly abandoned this approach.
Consider me, according to some activists I am described as a “soft climate denier”. Now consider where I stand on the major issues. As I have described elsewhere at this blog, I acknowledge the scientific principles underlying the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and believe it is inarguable that anthropogenic climate change is occurring. I have been clear that I believe that human causes are responsible for the majority of the climate change observed in the modern era. In this my viewpoint represents the “consensus” view, as per the most recent IPCC report. My sole potential deviation from the general “consensus” is that based on my technical knowledge, and on my reading of the trends in the recent academic literature, I believe that climate sensitivity will eventually be determined to be at the bottom end of the range reported in the IPCC Working Group I Report. I am thus, in all respects, a purveyor of the “consensus” view of climate change.
As I have pointed out before, one of the goals of this blog is to help alleviate the root causes of climate change (the anthropogenic increase in Tyndall gas concentrations) through the advancement of regionally-appropriate renewable technologies. I use the term “regionally-appropriate” here to acknowledge that not all technologies are ideal in all situations. In British Columbia we have an abundance of hydro, geothermal and wind resources. These resources are so abundant that our government-owned utility (BC Hydro) already generates over 86% of its electricity from hydro power (ref). Moreover, with planned run-of-the-river and static hydro projects (Site C in particular) we already have the potential to supply over 100% of our provincial energy needs through the use of hydro power alone. That being said, numerous wind energy projects are either operating or in development and some limited efforts are underway to exploit the bountiful geothermal resources available in the southern interior. One area where BC is not as well blessed is in solar potential. While much of the Peace Region and southern interior gets plentiful sunshine, other parts of our province are not as blessed. Consider the City of Prince Rupert. Based on the references I can find it has one of the lowest average levels of solar insolation in North America with an average value of approximately 3.7 hours/day (ref). So while a photovoltaic power installation might be an acceptable energy option in the Okanagan, in Prince Rupert this might not be the case. I’m sure any number of readers are going to disagree with me on this so let me explain my reasoning.
The first thing we must recognize is that photovoltaic solar cells don’t just magically appear, they have to be manufactured and the fabrication of solar cells is a very energy-intensive process. It has been calculated that the total equivalent CO2 emissions for a square meter photovoltaic solar panel (imported from China) adds up to between 1,243 kg and 1,809 kg of CO2 (ref is in German but translates nicely in Google translate). In order for the solar panel to make environmental sense it has to produce more energy over its lifetime than was used in its production. Given the level of solar insolation and average lifespan of a solar panel in Prince Rupert, covering your roof with solar panels will actually generate much more CO2 than simply relying on the power supplied by BC Hydro. In the reference cited above, the author actually examines photovoltaic solar installations in Germany and establishes that in much of that country solar energy may be less environmentally advantageous than producing the same amount of energy using natural gas or even, surprisingly, high-efficiency coal power generation. Thus in my mind further hydro generation or geothermal would be a regionally-appropriate renewable technologies in BC while any solar installation would have to demonstrate, on a case-by-case basis, that it actually improved our net carbon position.
Being interested in evidence-based decision making, I have striven to provide the most reliable information on both the strengths and weaknesses associated with renewable energy alternatives. Because I put all the information out there, my blog has been cited both by people who support enhancing these technologies and by those who challenge this orthodoxy. Apparently to some this is a bad thing. As an example, I have been sent messages by observers when they see my work on pipelines cited by “pro-oil sands groups”. The messages typically blame me because my information is being “misused”. To be clear when they say “misused”, it does not mean “used out of context”, but rather it means “used in context by someone with an opposing viewpoint”. I find this complaint problematic because one of the critical features of evidence-based decision making is that the information generated in the process is intended to be used in making decision, by people on both sides of the discussion.
Since I am admitting my sins, let me admit to my biggest one in the eyes of the activists out there: I am a pragmatist. I acknowledge that in the foreseeable future we are not going to see a complete phase-out of fossil fuels for automotive, aviation and cargo ship uses. We simply lack the infrastructure and technologies to provide a viable alternative source of energy-dense fuels to power our trucks, airplanes, diesels and other small engines. Since fossil fuels are going to be necessary for the foreseeable future, I believe it is imperative to ensure that our necessary fuel and crude supplies are transported in the most environmentally sound manner possible, which in BC means by pipelines and double-hulled tankers and not by rail. To double this sin, I am also something of a nationalist. I believe that until the world can get a handle on controlling carbon it is better that the fuels used in North American automobiles and the crude refined in North American refineries comes from sources with North American environmental standards rather than those of Nigeria or Venezuela and that the profits from that production goes to help pay for our Medicare and not to fund foreign dictators or export civil wars.
So let me recount my myriad of "sins" in the eyes of the dyed-in-the-wool, dedicated, climate change activists. I am a believer in AGW and the “IPCC consensus” but I do not subscribe to the most extreme interpretations provided by the Bill McKibben’s of the world. I have looked at renewable technologies in sufficient detail to recognize that not all technologies are going to be applicable in all situations and that any decision about renewable energy choices should be informed by data rather than ideology. Most sinfully, I care enough about our shared ecological heritage to be unwilling to sacrifice it on the altar of some demonstrably ineffective attempt to “strangle the oil sands”. For these heresies I, among many, am considered a “soft climate denier”. I am considered unworthy to be heard in the councils of the pure and for some am considered no better than the worst of the denialists out there, someone to be muted, blocked or ignored. The problem is that if you are trying to build a movement to address an important and far-reaching problem like anthropogenic global warming it seems sensible to try and expand your tent. You should be looking to recruit people like me rather than excluding us because we don’t pass some ideological purity test. Unfortunately, that is not how the modern environmental movement works, for them you are either with them in ALL things, or you are not.....


  1. I've noticed the people who lean towards name calling and using the "denier" label are usually unable to grasp complex technical problems. Given their behavior pattern I would say a lot of PhDs with science degrees may be too narrowly trained.

    I read what you have been writing and I tend to agree nearly all the time. So lease keep at it, and don't let them get you down. Lately I've felt the technical issues are discussed with more clarity and intelligence by people like you, so I've leaned towards writing feeble comedy. Try "I interview Ebenezer Rabbet", I'm sure you'll know the characters.

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  3. Before I read your post I read this article about how the media should handle climate change issues in the US presidential election in 2016.

    Imagine that a Republican presidential candidate said what you said: “I am a believer in AGW and the “IPCC consensus” but I do not subscribe to the most extreme interpretations provided by the Bill McKibben’s of the world. I have looked at renewable technologies in sufficient detail to recognize that not all technologies are going to be applicable in all situations and that any decision about renewable energy choices should be informed by data rather than ideology.”

    I believe that Grist would label the candidate as a climate denier. The article concludes “You can’t take sides in the fight between reality and ideological fantasy.” It is sad and, in the long term, counter-productive to developing solutions that any deviation from the dogma of catastophe is labeled as ideological fantasy.

    1. CNY, it's mostly a political movement with a front line led by extreme characters.

  4. Most sceptics view the world this way, or at least that's how they started. After a while you get fed up and decide you might as well be a fully fledged denier. After all, with the blind leading the blind, what does it matter which side you're on?