Argument versus Proselytising: Developing and defending a rational debate on energy and survival.

The debate on climate change faces a number of inherent handicaps. Human nature is perhaps the most important. At our best, we deal reasonably well with the present and the immediate future. If next Christmas seems remote, our abilities to grasp what the environment might look like ten or fifty years hence are severely limited.  A limitation that is reinforced by our relative powerlessness – the “I’m happy to recycle but what about the Chinese coal-fired power stations?” argument.

A second handicap comes from the not insignificant resources some invest in promoting climate change denial. The most understandable of these come from businesses with a clear commercial interest in delaying, diluting, or derailing regulatory attempts.

Then come the (usually wealthy) benefactors who are ideologically opposed to any form of market regulation. This groups funds many of the more strident US think tanks and a range of other lobby groups whose job it is to rubbish climate change claims and scientific arguments.

Unfortunately the irresponsible, arrogant or just plain sloppy actions of some climatologists have now provided change opponents with a generous supply of potent live ammunition.

Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, is perhaps the most infamous. His unit crunched the numbers to produce the Earth’s temperature curve. Their calculations, based on temperature records dating back to the beginning of industrialisation, showed that the average global temperature has increased by nearly one degree since 1850.

In making their calculations they had to factor in various adjustments to allow for local factors. The most obvious example is that of readings from a particular weather station taken over several decades. If that station was in open countryside when it opened in 1920 but is now surrounded by buildings, that change has to be factored in to produce meaningful statistics.

This process is known as statistical “homogenisation”. Understandably when other scientists or laboratories want to review and develop such work, they need access to the homogenisation formulae used in the original. The CRU resisted or refused requests for their original calculations before being obliged to admit that they had in fact deleted them from their computer systems.

While most scientists accept the basic figures from the University of East Anglia, they cannot actually verify them, and therefore can no longer stand over them.

Last month these and other gaffes led UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to establish the InterAcademy Council, a coalition of 15 national academies of science, to review the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by this Autumn.

The UK Met Office has decided to make all its climate data freely available on-line, but it is likely to be a couple of years before this system is up and running.

If most scientists believe reviews are unlikely to alter the basic conclusion that our planet is getting warmer because of human activities, it has become painfully obvious that this has not made the task of those of us who argue for rapid and radical action on climate change any easier.

There are, however, several reasons other than climate change per se why our societies urgently need to address some of their climate-related challenges.

There are nearly 7 billion of us on our small planet and in less than 40 years we are likely to be some 9 billion.

Demographers postulate that population growth will level off around 2050, and that the global population will then gradually decline. That reassuring prediction has to be qualified by pointing out that its major basis is a hope that past human reproduction patterns will be repeated in the future. Essentially as people become wealthier, more educated and more of them live in urban areas, they tend to have fewer children.

We are, current crises apart, becoming wealthier as a species. As Chinese living standards rise, Chinese people are eating more meat, more often. The North American lifestyle of comfortable housing, personal vehicles and abundant food is the one to which many people aspire. The problem is that it would take the resources of five planets to satisfy that aspiration, and we only have one.

Feeding, housing and satisfying 9 billion people is a major challenge – given that the global population was only nudging 3 billion back in 1950. One thing we do know is that we cannot simply duplicate how we (sort of) dealt with the doubling of our planet’s population between 1950 and 2000 if we are to satisfy the needs on 9 billion in 2050.

The imminence of peak oil is spelled out in the report of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security (ITPOES) The Oil Crunch published in February 2010 Sometime in the next 5-10 years we will hit the maximum possible level of oil production. Oil supply will thereafter inevitably decline, perhaps gradually at first, and oil prices will inexorably rise. Already, in the midst of our current global economic recession crude oil was trading at an 18-month high of about $86 a barrel last week.

Just how we are going to significantly expand agricultural production as the price of diesel for tractors and combine harvesters and oil for fertilisers doubles and then trebles is one of the many difficult questions humanity needs to answer.

The declining oil supply will become concentrated in those activities where oil is difficult, or for the moment impossible, to replace.

Human ingenuity, political direction and market forces will all move to replace oil with other energy sources where possible. As the simplest and most profitable (at least in the short term) move for market forces would be to concentrate on coal both as a fuel in its own right and as a basis for synthetic petrol and diesel, this will have to be counterbalanced by public regulation and incentives.

Electricity is going to play an ever greater role in our energy supply mixture. Given that vehicle generations in developed economies have about a 15 year cycle, by around 2030 most of our vehicles will be either electric or largely electric with small stand-by thermal engines. Electricity is likely to supply more of our space heating, most probably via heat pumps.

This means that all developed economies are going to have to address two urgent challenges. The first is making more electricity available, and the second is distributing that electricity.

More electricity can be made available through better use of existing production and through adding production capacity. Quite where the balance will lie will depend on a range of local and national factors. France, for example, is not going to reduce its dependency on nuclear fission for 78% of its electricity needs any time soon.

The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering published Generating the Future: UK Energy Systems fit for 2050 last month ( The Academy places its emphasis on electricity transmission rather than on how that electricity might be generated. Its conclusions in terms of the effort and investment required if the UK is going to be capable of keeping the lights on make for sobering reading. Transmission systems, particularly smart grids, take years, if not decades, to design and build.

The Academy’s message is essentially pragmatic, but that pragmatism is quintessentially political as it states in the conclusions to the Executive Summary:

“While the market will be the vehicle for technological and business solutions… security of supply and affordability call for a more directed approach from government. This transcends political ideology: only government can facilitate and ensure delivery of the necessary infrastructure, some of which, being natural monopolies, do not respond classically to market forces. The market will not respond unless there is an appropriate long-term national plan and a framework set out by government to ensure the delivery of the necessary infrastructure in the wider context of Europe.”

Ireland desperately needs a rational and a rapid debate about a host of long-term policies and investments: electricity supply and distribution, electrification of railways, energy inter-connections with Britain and mainland Europe, together with cost/benefit and feasibility studies on a rail tunnel under the Irish Sea to link us with the proposed British high speed rail network, and onwards to mainland Europe.

Such investments could take us a long way towards developing the Irish economy, creating not just thousands of badly needed jobs, but also a pool of professionals skilled in tasks which are going to be in truly universal demand in the near future.

There is little sign of such strategic thinking in our political parties, nor indeed amongst senior officials. To have any chance of being prepared for major changes in energy realities in the next 5-30 years and to any of the likely impacts of global climate change on our island, then that debate will have to be citizen-generated.

Those of us who seek to develop such a debate need to be more careful than some climate scientists have been in the past.  Our arguments need to be solid and challenging while not being alarmist.

If our message becomes one of “we are all doomed” we should not be surprised if we fail to motivate our fellow citizens because if doom is unavoidable, then why should people try to avoid it?

More rational analysis and less proselytising.

We need to act, and we need to act now.

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3 Responses to Argument versus Proselytising: Developing and defending a rational debate on energy and survival.

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn says:


    That is a superb piece, and very cool and measured. Quite a contrast to Eddie Hobbs’s urgent high-pitched squeal when he made some of the same points on NewsTalk just before Easter. But after hearing Eddie I was rapidly weighing up my options vis-à-vis home heating, so you’d have to wonder which approach works best – the emotional one or the laidback, icy-cool one.

    Eamon Ryan’s efforts to put electric cars on the roads are very encouraging, and particularly his plans to use wind power for that. It is strategic, joined-up thinking and eminently sensible. But as you describe in your piece, we don’t have the means of effectively transmitting sudden large loads of wind-generated energy, the 400 kV lines, so there will be a serious energy crunch, perhaps within five years, when oil becomes unaffordable. It’s odd that we’re not preparing for that. As you say, it will take years to put the infrastructure in place, so, short of an emergency response with all resources being ploughed into it, we will end up buying in energy (probably nuclear) at enormous cost. If the country isn’t bankrupt now….

    Regarding the need for radical investment in a range of essential technologies, creating thousands of jobs, you say the political parties and civil service are unable to think strategically like this and that the debate will have to be “citizen-generated.” Can you expand on this in another piece? For openers, could we ask David McWilliams to run the country for us for ten years? Well, why not?

    I believe peak oil will bring a food crunch and that communities will have to develop food-growing skills, probably using permaculture and organic farming in collectives. John Gibbons wrote that the requisite skills may not be acquired quickly enough or before the system of oil-dependent food production and distribution breaks down and supermarket shelves go empty. That seems distinctly possible, and we will need a revolution in farming to make Ireland self-sufficient in food. The Greens have a buzzword for it, ‘resilience,’ and the Transition Towns movement, which started in Kinsale, has this aim. The odd thing is, farming is supposedly on its knees, and agricultural colleges are shutting up shop; all this when farming is going to become of paramount importance in less than a decade. Farms will have to become food suppliers to the nation and not just agri-businesses exporting produce. People are resilient and do learn quickly, but time is of the essence.

    Local authorities could be turning all that empty green space on urban housing estates into allotments, which would be convenient for a lot of people, though the main food producing areas would still have to be on good land. It was never a good idea to build housing all over north Dublin, which has probably the best arable land in the country.

    I would differ with you on some points. If you honestly believe the climatologists were being “irresponsible, arrogant … and sloppy,” then the sceptics must be raising their glasses; that’s the kind of thing they hoped to hear. Their requests for information were made in the hope of finding something that might cast climate research in a poor light. Of course the climatologists resisted; their time was being wasted.

    Now Obama is turning to nuclear arms issues, having spent a whole year on health insurance: when will he get around to the climate problem? He is clearly avoiding the issue out of fear of failure. If he could do the right thing, it would make a world of difference.

    I am surprised you think the world will be able to support nine billion people. The challenge is to bring numbers down to a sustainable level; if they are not reduced somehow, famine will take care of the numbers. It has been said that the world without oil can only support two billion people. You would describe that as highly alarmist, I think, but it needs to be looked at.

    Switching to coal when the oil runs out may be the cheapest option but it will only exacerbate the global warming problem: the technology for carbon capture is not sufficiently developed. Only renewables and nuclear are worth considering. If you really believe it safe to use coal, then you are not looking at the ice-melt problem in Greenland and Antartica. We are only the melt of a chunk of Antarctica away from a six-metres rise in sea level; admittedly a very large chunk comprising a sizeable proportion of the continent, but I think it only sensible to feel slightly alarmed about this, if you think about it rationally, or very alarmed and prepared to do something about it, if you think about it rationally and also pull your head out of the sand. Not you, per se, but people generally.

    Also, there is a good chance that hydrogen will play a significant part in the transport energy mix and will be the main, almost the only, sustainable option for future air transport, that I know of anyway, other than solar-powered light aircraft.

  2. askja says:

    “I am surprised you think the world will be able to support nine billion people. The challenge is to bring numbers down to a sustainable level; if they are not reduced somehow, famine will take care of the numbers. ”

    Pol Pot, is that you?

  3. james nix says:

    Robin McKie:

    “After months of controversy, the University of East Anglia climate unit was exonerated last week over the leaked emails affair. Science editor Robin McKie says there are lessons to be learned – but those who call themselves sceptics must address their own intellectual dishonesty.

    It was, by many accounts, the worst academic outrage of modern times. A host of emails, illegally obtained from the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia, “revealed” that researchers were manipulating data about global warming and were guilty of perpetrating “the worst scientific scandal of a generation”. At least that is how many writers reacted to the news of the leaking of emails between unit leader Phil Jones and fellow researchers.

    Last week, however, they adopted a different approach after a report, written by a team of experts recommended by the Royal Society and led by Lord Oxburgh, vindicated the work of the climate research unit, completely exonerated Jones and pronounced that his research was robust and solid. Those hostile writers were largely silent. Given all the hot air they have vented over the affair, this is perhaps not surprising.

    Nor am I complaining. A bit of silence from climate-change deniers is always welcome. However, it would be wrong to let last week’s revelations pass without comment. Climate science, and science in general, has undoubtedly been harmed by the affair. It is important that lessons are learnt from it…

    More –

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