After spending the weekend with hard-core conservatives I have concluded that the right are just as crazy as the left, except they make better jokes and spend less time being confused about their respective genders, sexuality, lack of privilege, and under-employment. The reasons for this are unclear, but may possibly be linked to the fact that those on the right (overwhelmingly) were spanked as children.
To summarize, both sides are very excited about money, drinking, and dinosaurs. The right are better dressed, the left are better at photography and graphic design. Conservatives are prettier (I would know, I’m dating one), but liberals have more flamboyant facial hair.
I would tell you which side is more self-righteous, but I think that’s a toss up.
What did I learn at the conference? Well, here are four points that reflect changes from what I wrote last week. These are the top picks, the paradigm shifts and the fantastic spectaculars:
1. The Morality of Oil
Our society is being slowly convinced to apologize for our usage of fossil fuels, a perspective that extends all the way into the upper management of most energy companies. This perspective is summed up as follows “As an exploiter of fossil fuels, I am an active participant in the destruction of our world, but I’m making money and I don’t want to stop.” There is an inherent guilt attached to this position, an implicit condemnation of everyone associated with the oil and gas industry.
All who have seen images of industrial era chimneys in London belching coal smoke know that there is some truth to this statement. Like any industry operating on a massive scale, fossil fuel extraction and use has large environmental consequences, but that does not mean that the consequences are uniform across the fossil fuel spectrum, or that they have remained unchanged during the century and a half that humanity has been developing combustion technology. The ability to have cheap, abundant energy on demand is made possible by fossil fuels and most likely will not be possible through a different source of energy for decades. Fossil fuels equal energy, and universal access to energy is probably the single most important factor in the calculation of one’s standard of living. The technology to exploit fossil fuels, after all, allowed the industrial revolution, the energy revolution, and the information explosion. The initiative to provide energy to developing countries around the world relies upon the burning of fossil fuels since no other form of energy production can possibly match demand.
If we don’t burn coal, people die. If we do burn coal, our atmosphere could become a giant microwave. By what measure then does one calculate the ‘morality’ of fossil fuels? Is it strictly based on carbon dioxide production? Does the human cost of its production matter as well? Do we consider the morality of denying to the developing world what the developed world has already benefited from (coal-powered energy plants and the like)?
2. The Reality of Oil
Solar power and wind power currently provide less than two percent of Canadian and American energy. In all likelihood that percentage will not grow for some time, as neither method of power production are cheap or efficient enough to make economic sense without massive subsidies. Biofuels, for all their hype, are also profoundly inefficient for the land and water resources their cultivation requires (currently ethanol production in the U.S. accounts for 40 percent of American grain production). The reality is that there is no energy alternative set to replace fossil fuel consumption in the next few decades. This doesn’t mean that one can’t miraculously appear, but it does mean that oil and gas will most likely be with us for some time.
The upshot of this reliance is that incremental improvements in extraction or consumption technologies have a massive impact upon global carbon dioxide emissions. Advances in the technology in coal-powered energy plants and the fracking of natural gas have allowed the U.S. to reduce energy-related carbon emissions to 1992 levels, mitigating large increased in population and energy production. Despite the rhetoric surrounding ‘clean energy’ (especially solar and wind power), it is greater efficiency in the ‘dirty’ fossil fuels industries that has catapulted the US towards its Kyoto commitments — all while increasing production and keeping Americans powered up. The fracking revolution since 2008 has exploded natural gas production in North America, driving prices down on a fuel that produces half the emissions of coal. According to the stats, it is the oil and gas industries that are accomplishing the lion’s share of emission reduction, even while their critics attempt to demonize them.
“Fracking” has joined “capitalism,” “globalization,” and “corporate” as words that inspire primeval disgust in large segments of the population. The narratives spun around the term – that fracking cause earthquakes, boils and pestilence, water contamination, and possibly Godzilla – are largely unfounded, but also uncritically accepted. After all, an angry homeowner shaking a jug of fluorescent orange water at a rich oil tycoon is a powerful image, and one that conjures up a David-and-Goliath narrative. What the facts are doesn’t matter as much as motivation, and everyone knows what motivates global corporations (a deadly cocktail of capitalist greed). The scientists are hired by the corporations, which in turn are in bed with the politicians, and so the only ones left to defend God’s green earth are the rural townsfolk and the high-minded university student.
It would be a cute movie, especially if coupled with a loveable (and endangered) animal sidekick, but the concept is more laughable than logical. The fracking industry, thanks to all the controversy, is actually very well regulated, has caused extremely few instances of contamination (the most famous was caused by negligence rather than fracking itself), and is far more capable of honesty than its detractors would lead you to believe. The most famous anti-fracking advocate, Josh Fox, filled his two Gasland documentaries with an appalling amount of fear-mongering, stat-fudging, and blatant lying. I won’t bother parading out examples, since they can be easily tracked down online, but many moments are comedic rather than tragic. After all, when Fox tries to sympathize with a rural American who claims to have discovered weapons-grade uranium in his water supply, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
Fracking has revolutionized the energy industry in North America, and is being heralded as a way to ‘bridge’ the gap between our societal reliance on conventional fossil fuels and future alternatives. The openness individuals feel towards this transition is often tied to the credibility they attribute to dire warning of climate catastrophe.
4. Not With a Flame But a Shiver
No one, conservative or liberal, believes humans are not affecting our environment or impacting global climate. What each side disagrees on is how accurate our ability to predict these effects are, and what we should do to mitigate them. When the U.S. attempts to create a “command economy” on energy production, the Republicans aren’t resisting simply because of an ideological imperative to disagree. They (rightly) question whether or not the solution matches the problem, or is simply a Trojan horse containing a darkly regulated future.
For example, have any of the climate modeling simulations conducted over the last 50 years produced a result even close to accurate? How is it that we went from fears of ‘global cooling’ in the ‘70s to the horrors of “global warming” today? How do we explain why Arctic ice is melting while Antarctic ice is expanding, or why global temperatures have remained essentially unchanged since 1998?
The answer to these questions is that we can’t, but that doesn’t mean that climate change is a fantasy. Climate modeling is a profoundly complex science that simply cannot account for all the variables that affect global climate. We see the changes, but we don’t know why they are occurring, or whether they are anthropogenic (man-made) or simply part of some ancient and obscure natural process. The Earth itself, after all, has its own systems and cycles, and without accounting for those as ‘constants,’ our ability to measure humanity’s impact is miniscule. We can measure our pollutants, we can see the localized consequences of our actions, but the transcendent effects are beyond us.
This doesn’t mean we should give up at attempting to understand our ‘footprint,’ so to speak, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t be frightened about our planet’s future. What it does mean is that we should be skeptical when a ‘scientific’ study warns that Bangladesh will be underwater by 2030, or that California will by drier than the Sahara by mid-century. It also suggests that when Obama promises that a certain set of regulations will prevent polar ice loss or raise the global temperature by a degree by 2100…
We should either call him a liar or ask him to a write a third testament.
If we cannot predict what exactly is causing the climate change we are currently experiencing, how can we expect any more success predicting future changes? And why should we accept radical strategies to ‘fix’ problems we don’t understand if such attempts in the past have almost always led to disaster?
Conservatives tend to believe that energy efficiency and pollution control will be achieved by private companies forced to innovate by the open market. Liberals tend to argue that environmental conservation, like infrastructure, requires government intervention. The truth (as always) is probably in the middle: if markets demands green technology than the private sector will work tirelessly to develop it, but the government is needed to encourage the market in this demand, and to ensure it’s implemented uniformly. So far liberals have been astoundingly successful at forcing the market to prioritize ecological considerations (at times shrilly), and conservatives can point to significant success (among industries like oil and gas production) in private development of greater industrial efficiency.
In summary, fossil fuels are the short-term future of energy, and anyone who denies this (like anyone who denies humanity is affecting climate) is not living in reality. The fossil fuel industry has actually significantly reduced emissions in North America over the past few decades, and even the oil sands are comparatively cleaner than sources of fuel outside the continent. Fracking, as far as anybody can measure, is an economic miracle, and both a way to radically reduce the environmental impact of drilling and to provide a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal.
One day we will understand climate change, but until that point our prophecies and our antidotes should be treated as what they are — astrology. Continuing agitation over environmental issues is useful in providing an incentive for the market to produce more efficient alternatives to present technologies, but, taken too far, it transforms into a sort of doomsday green socialism.
I also learned, last weekend, that Ezra Levant is a really nice guy in real life. And that I need more dress shirts. And that Westjet needs bigger seats so I don’t feel like I’m squeezing my 240 lbs into a toaster oven.
And fracking, FRACKING OF ALL THINGS, may be delaying the climate apocalypse.