“Hey, I care about the planet—can I go to Rio?”

English: Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro city ce...

My latest Green Chain column for the Lake County Record-Bee.


Last month the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) marked its 20th anniversary of the “Earth Summit,” meeting once again in Rio de Janeiro. In 1992, Earth Summiteers envisioned the future they wanted, which included uplifting the “social and economic development” status of the world’s poorest people and protecting the environment all the while using sustainable development. And, much of what they then hoped for has begun: The numbers in heart-breaking poverty are down for the first time in history, the rate of hunger is down, infant mortality is down, illiteracy is down–the list of achievements continues. In short, we are healthier, wealthier and better educated now than in any time in our world’s history. Much work remains to be done, but the numbers show that the problems are not intractable.
After making progress on the social and economic front for the past 20 to 30 years many in the environmentalists worry that those achievements happened because we allowed evil corporations to unsustainably use our earth’s resources, and we must stop corporations from massively gouging, plowing, polluting, and consuming too much. We need to rein in our appetites and think smaller, dimmer, and slower.

Or, put another way, if you liked the ‘Great Recession’ you will love your ‘green’ future.

Your lifestyle is the problem, according to many greens, but the answer is easy, explained Ronald Bailey in an article on the 1992 Earth Summit. “Let the government divest you of your excess goods, such as your carbon-dioxide-emitting automobile; your alienating, too big house or apartment; and foods imported from outside your bioregion.” Wahoo! Haven’t you always wanted to live the life of a 12th century serf? Hello grinding poverty and dysentery!

So, last month some 50,000 people including world leaders, government functionaries, private sector people, non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and others converged on sybaritic and raucous Rio for a week in June to consider how to “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.”**

The crowning achievement of this latest Earth Summit was, not surprisingly, a document: “The Future We Want.”

Obviously, the “future we want” must be done sustainably which means, according to the U.N. website, using resources to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Of course we know what those future resources will be, right?*

The final document displeased most of the NGOs, because, those charged with finalizing it did so by cutting any quantifiable commitments from any nations and not really defining “sustainable (but salting the word throughout the document).”***

“It is nothing less than a disaster for the planet,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, in their press release. “This is a hollow deal and a gift to corporate polluters that hold UN decision-making hostage to further their economic interests.”

The Greens need not worry. As Ronald Bailey notes, “The Future We Want” launches “a process to define a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” with the “newly created Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)” to list and define the SDGs. The IPBES will be similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It bears noting the IPCC started out cautious in its assessment of the state of knowledge of climate change and became increasingly strident when it learned that money flowed to it when its predictions became ever more catastrophic.

I fully expect the IPBES to follow the IPCC’s lead and make increasingly gloomier predictions periodically. I just wish they could have these meetings in some way that didn’t result in thousands of people flying thousands of miles to wring their hands about other people’s pollution. Minding other people’s business seems to be the only sustainable activity they can all agree on.

* Aren’t you glad our Neolithic-age ancestors saved rocks; otherwise we might have run out by now.

** It’s amazing how these conferences often happen in places with sun-soaked beaches (such as Rio and Cancun). I am sure that the UNCSD planners picked Rio de Janeiro because it showcases the economical use of resources, especially on the famous beaches. After all, as P.J. O’Rourke has noted, Rio’s beachgoers use “very few of the Earth’s precious resources on clothes.”

*** You can drive an oversized truck and trailer through the current definition–one research paper noted it could mean anything from “exploit as much as you wish as long as you do not infringe on the ability for people in the future to exploit as much as they wish” to use “as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life.”


Bailey, Ronald. What I Did on my Summer Vacation. Reason magazine, 1992. pp46-48  http://reason.com/assets/db/13396383287448.pdf

Bailey, Ronald. Sustainability Semantics. Reason magazine, July 2010.   http://reason.com/archives/2010/07/06/sustainability-semantics accessed 5 July 2012

Bailey, Ronald. Rio +20 Earth Summit: Greens Fail to Get The Future They Want. Reason.com. http://reason.com/archives/2012/06/21/rio-20-earth-summit-greens-fail-to-get-t accessed 2 July 2012

Rio+20 – United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/about.html accessed 4 July 2012

Friends of the Earth International. Rio+20 Declaration: A Gift to Corporate Polluters. http://www.foei.org/en/what-we-do/rio-20/blog-posts/rio-20-declaration-a-gift-to-corporate-polluters accessed 5 July 2012

Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015. Brookings Institute. http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2011/01_global_poverty_chandy.aspx accessed January 27, 2011

Opening Gambit: Best. Decade. Ever. Charles Kenny. Foreign Policy magazine. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/16/best_decade_ever?page=full accessed: January 13, 2011

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A warmer and wetter world

I found a link the other day to a government website with global mean precipitation data from 1900 to 2000. Of course, I can’t find the link now (please comment if you have the link, but first see the note at the end of the post).

Anyway, I put the numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and graphed the data and added a trendline. (If you would like a copy of the xls file, please ask for it in the comment section below.) As the world warms it is getting wetter. As Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist:

If you take the IPCC’s [International Panel on Climate Change] assumptions and count the people living in zones that will have more water versus zones that will have less water, it is clear that the net population at risk of water shortage falls by 2100 under all their scenarios. (emphasis added)

Global mean precipitation (1900-2000)

10 yr average-global mean precipitation (1900-2000)

Even the EPA cites the IPCC (2007) to say much the same thing:

As global mean temperatures have risen, global mean precipitation also has increased. This is expected because evaporation increases with increasing temperature, and there must be an increase in precipitation to balance the enhanced evaporation (IPCC, 2007). Globally, precipitation over land increased at a rate of 1.9 percent per century since 1901, but the trends vary spatially and temporally. Over the contiguous U.S., total annual precipitation increased at an average rate of 6.1 percent per century since 1901, although there was considerable regional variability. The greatest increases came in the South (10.5 percent per century), the Northeast (9.8 percent), and the East North Central climate region (9.6 percent). A few areas such as Hawaii and parts of the Southwest have seen a decrease.

Crops may flourish with warmer climes and more CO2. There is some indication that in California some trees are increasing their ranges in response to this change. While increasing temperatures do have their downside, they also have positive benefits as well.

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Gaming Malthus with “Fate of the World”

I have submitted this to the Record-Bee for my December Green Chain column.

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” – John Stuart Mill

In 1901, while searching for giant clams for dinner, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatos found an encrusted bronze device near the wreckage of a 2,100-year-old Roman merchant ship. It was discovered off the southern coast of Greece near Antikythera (an-ti-ki-theer-uh) Island, so it became known as the Antikythera mechanism. Sophisticated imaging has revealed its elaborate gears and the inscribed names of places and months. It is an orrery—a mechanical model of the solar system. In a letter, Cicero describes such a mechanism which, “at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night.” It also computed equinoxes, solstices, phases of the moon, and eclipses of the moon and sun and, as an added benefit, the timing of future Olympiads. The Antikythera mechanism was a computer.

Stadiatos dived for dinner and discovered the past, now you can dive into the dystopian future—which a new video game purports to reveal—unless you can prevent it. The scenario for Fate of the World (FotW) starts in the year 2020 when climate change induced disasters strike. Then the “World Environment Organization,” (a turbo-charged United Nations), makes you the climate czar to “decide how the world will respond to rising temperatures, heaving populations, dwindling resources, crumbling ecosystems and brave opportunities.” Here’s an example from a review in Britain’s Guardian:

“Put an emissions cap on a growing economy, stifling growth, and they’ll get fed up and throw your agency out of the area. Encourage investment and prosperity and there’ll soon be environmental consequences. Each turn sends you forward five years – and you’re informed as the game progresses of the many changes that take place in the world as temperatures increase.”

Gabion Rowlands of Red Redemption, the game’s development company, claims FotW provides realistic glimpses at scary futures because it relies on current scientific models. He believes climate change will cause “population issues, land issues, possibly resource wars, mass migration; a whole range of disasters and impacts, in fact.”

Color me skeptical.

I could point out that 98.5 per cent (210 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2 is the greenhouse gas most mentioned) entering the atmosphere comes from natural sources in the world’s carbon cycle, while people add only 1.5 per cent (3.2 billion metric tons) to the total.(Christy 2002) (The IPCC says the the human caused CO2 figure is 7.2. Still a small fraction of natural.)

I could point out global warming is not likely to precipitate world chaos; after all, using previous warm periods as guides, the earth should be wetter (because of greater evaporation from the oceans), with fewer droughts, with more drinking water, and with higher crops yields. (Ridley 2010)

And, I could point out that all the models use a positive feedback to amplify effects. Without these yet unproven feedbacks doubling CO2 produces a 1C degree change over the coming century—hardly cataclysmic. (Lindzen 2010)

I will point out FotW’s undercurrent of misanthropy—people are the problem. FotW beats a familiar rented mule: overpopulation. Boil down the babble, this drives FotW: lower the number of people and you lower the output of CO2 thus saving the world. One of the game’s producers posits that a player could fix things by deciding to decimate much of the planet’s population with an engineered super-virus. “The first thing to say about this is the obvious, that killing every last person in Africa would have less impact on climate change than getting Westerners to use 10% less energy.”

So that’s the idea: damage occurs in direct proportion to the number of people and their affluence and technology. More effluence with affluence. It is “not rocket science,” according to biologists Anne and Paul Ehrlich. “Two billion people, all else being equal, put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than one billion people. Two billion rich people disrupt the climate more than two billion poor people.” Which is why North Korea makes a shining example and Eden-esque paradise.

The idea of people being mere consumers and not innovative producers is probably as old as humanity. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote, “The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death (through famine, war, or disease must) visit the human race.” In other words, people breed until they exhaust all available food and all natural resources; so keeping human population in check is necessary. Note that in Malthus’s time, population stood just shy of one billion. Today it exceeds six billion.

Malthus went onto computer chips in 1972 when a think-group calling itself the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth.” It is based on World3, an MIT professor’s computer model. The code that girded World3 followed the precepts of Thomas Malthus. Author Peter Huber explains one of World3’s subroutines: “Agricultural investment increased agricultural output, which increased birthrate but also pollution; pollution decreased agricultural output, and so on.” Instead of predicting higher temperatures as FotW does, the Limits to Growth predicted crippling shortages of gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas within a decade. The shortages never happened.

To me, FotW looks like Malthus on a computer chip again—it is misanthropy cloaked in science. They conjure climate change as the latest trump card requiring draconian remedies. And, for being ‘just’ a game, it’s serious stuff. According to an opinion piece in the journal Nature, “Over the past decade, evidence has grown that computer-based play can support learning in schools.” A British government study “found that students whose lessons included interactive games were more engaged in curriculum content and demonstrated deeper understanding of concepts than those who did not use games.”

Now I have no window into our future and we should not be complacent, but let us consider what has actually occurred on this earth—not a model—since 1970. Despite the world’s population nearly doubling since 1970: we are three times richer (in real terms); the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped more than two-thirds; we are better fed (the average person in a developing country eats nearly one-third more calories); forests still cover 99% of what they did in 1970; known mineral reserves have not grown too scarce; and, rather than shrinking, petroleum and natural gas reserves have more than doubled and quadrupled respectively. By the way, the world’s population growth rate has been falling since the 1970s; it is not expected to double and reach 12 billion, ever.

The users of the Antikythera mechanism set their model of an earth-centric universe in motion by turning a crank. At the front, pointers indicated the future location and phase of the planets and sun and moon. Because they had the earth at the center, planets went into “retrograde,” that is they appeared to move backward in the heavens. The most learned minds fashioned the orrery to mimic the way they believed their celestial sphere worked. (Though many had speculated about a heliocentric system, it took more than 15 centuries to upend the old model with Copernicus declaring the sun to be the center of our solar system.)

So too, do World3 and FotW give flawed answers via their electronic gears and cogs.

I am recommending a “Don’t Buy” for Fate of the World. Get a DVD of the old Soylent Green instead; in 40 years FotW futures will look as realistic as that movie does now.

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