Saturday, March 03, 2007

Dominic Lawson: Intellectually Dishonest

One good thing about blogs is that it is difficult to get away with the standard techniques of dishonest debate. Resort to straw-man arguments, and you almost always collect a bucket of shit in short order. In national newspapers' opinion pages, not so much.

Dominic Lawson, Sunday Torygraph editor, wants the world to know he's seen a film called "The Great Global Warming Swindle" by one of the ex-Revolutionary Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist)/Living Marxism guys. So he puts it in his column in Friday's Indy. Amusingly, he commits a serious breach of etiquette by actually mentioning that the director is an ex-RCP man - they usually don't like to mention it.

He then proceeds to lie:
The same sort of argument, in fact, which caused countless millions of Africa children to die of malaria unnecessarily because the Green lobby successfully blocked the use of DDT.
This is simply factually incorrect. There is no ban on DDT for disease prevention. There is a specific clause in the Stockholm Convention that exempts DDT for malaria control from the international control. Mosquitoes began to be resistant to DDT in 1969, so its utility is limited to say the least. But if you do think it will work, you can buy the stuff at this link, like the governments of Madagascar, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Africa, Namibia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Algeria, Thailand, and Myanmar.

Anyway, he describes the film as follows:
We are taken to those vast tracts of Africa where there is no electricity, and see families huddled round a fire in their mud hut. Then we are told that "five million children under five die every year as a result of respiratory diseases from indoor smoke". Remember that, the next time you read about the ecological purity of heating derived from "biomass".
Hark! Wood pellets in a CHP scheme will fill your house with poisonous black smoke! And dead babies! Dead black babies! This is argumentation of a standard that shouldn't get out of primary school. A thought experiment - let me light a wood fire under a chimney, and Lawson light a gas or oil one without, and which one of us will die of carbon-monoxide poisoning first?

It's the chimney, stupid - it could be a new political slogan, no? In fact, there are NGOs running around Africa building chimneys and installing stoves, not to mention biogas digesters, specifically to address what passes for a point here. No word on them from Lawson, of course.

Next, we are taken to some godforsaken health center in the Kenyan hinterland, struggling to get by with electricity from a dilapidated but undeniably politically correct solar panel. It just about manages to keep alive the fridge with the medicine inside. Despite such scenes, Durkin's latest effort is not a manipulative tear-jerker..
Clearly. I can just imagine the place - next to one of the mighty 400KV transmission lines of Kenya's hyper-efficient national supergrid backbone, but denied electricity. Well, not really. There's a fridge there working, but it's not proper, macho electricity - it's politically correct, solar electricity. Gay electricity, to coin a phrase. And why? All because of evil green lobbyists, intimidating those poor naked babes such as BP, Shell, the Daily Telegraph, the Conservative Party...

The problem with this line of argument is blindingly obvious. We are in those vast tracts of Africa where there is no electricity, are we not? There isn't any electricity, Dom. It's not Surrey. Yes, you could use a diesel generator, but then, your godforsaken health centre has to buy diesel, and not have it stolen by men with AK47s and a Landcruiser with no diesel. And even if there was a transmission line out there, Kenya would have to find the foreign exchange to import the coal, gas, or oil - or uranium - to drive it.

So far, we've got a strawman and two direct lies in three paragraphs.

People whose business actually is the development of Africa don't have these problems. At companies like Safaricom, MTN-Investcom, and Celtel, they are very, very keen on driving their mobile phone base stations with wind and solar power, for the reasons in the last paragraph. And they are profitable, so according to Lawson's professed beliefs, he ought to revise his views.

Perhaps the fact he gets his views from people who either a) underwent an unprecedented mass conversion in 1991 to extreme right-libertarianism but still find it necessary to defend Radovan Karazdic, b) discovered in 1991 that advocating ideas powerful people like is good for business, or c) still believe in the revolution and think that making everything worse will heighten the contradictions and force everyone to listen to them, ought to have a similar effect, too.

Finally, he leaps for a straw. There is a scientist, name of Svensmark, in Denmark, who believes that fluctuations in cosmic rays cause changes in cloud formation. He has some experimental evidence for this. He theorises that this may explain part of observed global warming. He is, of course, now the toast of the bitter-end deniers (whether he wants this honour is doubtful). Lawson, of course, buys in.

There is a problem, though, or rather several. For a start, nobody knows whether more clouds at high altitude reflect heat outwards or hold it in, on balance. So it could actually make things worse.

And for a second, it's not really very helpful. If you pay money into a bank account, at a rate that fluctuates randomly around a central value, and take a constant amount out a month, the balance will fluctuate trendlessly with the income. If you, or someone else, decides to start adding a sum of money every month, it will still fluctuate with the random variations, but the balance will start to show a steady rising trend. Now, if it pays a high rate of interest, the system will exhibit positive feedback, and the balance will rise by an accelerating rate.

Whatever random inputs into the climate system are discovered, so long as the laws of physics and chemistry do not change, the same principles will apply. In the short run, if Svensmark is right, we are adding heat to a system which is trending warmer anyway. That does not sound like reassurance to me. Even if he was right and the effect is the reverse in the short run, what happens when it flips, as a randomly cycling effect will by definition do?

But what does reassure me is that the class base of conservatism has changed its mind. GE, Volvo Trucks, Siemens, Rolls-Royce, Alstom..even the Chinese are building 5MW wind turbines. As Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote about the end of the Mengistu regime, after the army went home, only the academics were left, and they were rounded up without difficulty. The merchants have made up their minds, and only the bullshitters are left.

Update: Looks like the Svensmark/Calder theory has already met the tattoed fist of empirical refutation.

Another update: An anti-wind power lobby group has picked up on this post! I'm honoured, dammit! links this post next to the suggestion that "greens" are behind the dodgy fuel reported at supermarkets in the south-east. Aaaah, they're so prone, aren't they? According to the actual chemical analyses, it's silicone lube in the fuel that's the problem..and no-one thinks that's a biofuel.

Yet another update: From conservaworld, one "J.F. Beck" checks in. No doubt this comment will be memory-holed in short order, so it's preserved here: So Lawson is right to argue that any use of biofuels is going to make your kids die from indoor smoke?

Smoke is indoor because of a lack of chimneys. Lawson would die if he lit a fossil-fuelled heater without adequate ventilation, as happens to poor people in the UK quite frequently.

It's a dishonest, strawman argument and a rather sick one at that.

Further, do you dispute the terms of the Stockholm convention? Do you know better than the authoritative text of the convention? Can you kindly provide your version?

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