Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Elusive proof

Science and politics don’t always sit easily together.  It’s tempting to suggest that that is because science seeks truth, whereas political ‘truth’ is always changing.  That isn’t entirely fair though; scientific truth can change as well, albeit not as easily or conveniently as political truth.  The timescale question is probably a more relevant one.  Politicians’ horizons are often limited to the date of the next election, whereas science tends to the longer term view.
Climate change – or more specifically, the anthropogenic element thereof – is an example of the way in which scientists and politicians are driven by different considerations, and on very different timescales.  Seen through the eyes of a politician interested in short term economic benefit, these comments by the MP for Monmouth make some sort of sense.
His core argument seems to be that if one country alone tries to take radical action to reduce carbon emissions, whilst others do little or nothing, then that one country will be seriously disadvantaged economically in the short term.  He’s right; the problem is not with that part of his argument.  (Although the conclusion drawn – that we should not do anything either – is far from being the only possible conclusion from that line of thinking.)
Such reasoning leads to a situation where no-one does anything until everyone else agrees to act as well.  If the science is right on climate change, such a conclusion is a recipe for disaster.  But as long as it doesn't happen in the timescales of any elections which current-day politicians are likely to be fighting...
Underlying his argument is another strand, which goes well beyond the question of unilateral action.  It is clear that he is not convinced about the existence of anthropogenic climate change in the first place, because it hasn’t been ‘proven’ to his satisfaction.  And he highlights a number of issues and statistics which underline that lack of conclusive proof.
In taking that viewpoint, of course, he’s far from being alone, although it’s a view which seems to be more widely held by politicians and economists than by the experts in the field.  And, up to a point at least, he’s right on that as well. 
‘Proof’ of a scientific proposition is an elusive beast, and greater understanding over a period can, and frequently does, lead to refinement or even fundamental change of the basic proposition.  But lack of complete proof is not at all the same thing as complete lack of proof; however, a jump from one to the other is all too readily made.
I’d accept the basic point that the impact of what we’re doing to the earth is not currently fully understood, and that many of the predictions are based on models which make a number of assumptions.  They may be the best possible assumptions, and they may be made by people who’ve spent a lifetime working in the field, but they’re still assumptions.
What we know for certain however is that human activity is adding CO2 and other greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, and that the concentration of those gasses in the atmosphere is increasing.  The danger behind the thinking of people like David Davies is that we wait until the impact of that is entirely proven before acting – at which point it will be too late.
I don’t unquestioningly believe every prediction being made by the climate scientists; but given a choice of following their advice or that of a layman who happens to be an MP, I wouldn’t choose the MP.


Jac o' the North said...

As a politician of the Right it's perfectly natural for David Davies to make the points he does. For the environment is now a Left / Right isuue.

And I agree with him; Wales will suffer because so many politicians here have gone overboard on saving the planet, yet the policies adopted will do nothing except damage the Welsh economy, and the Welsh landscape.

So why does the Left uncritically accept the predictions being made by scientists, too many of whom have a vested interest in pushing the AGW message, either because they've staked their reputations on it, they want funding, or they've got a book to sell?

The truth is that every year science discovers new influences on the climate that demand we rethink previous assumptions and 'predictions'.

Because, let's be truthful, no one knows what the world will be like in 2050. The trouble is that in previous generations we left such 'predictions' to shamans, seers, novelists, movie makers, and treated their output for what it was.

Yet when scientists indulge in 'predictions' (by getting from computers exactly what they want because of the data input), we are expected to ruin our economies and bankrupt households with insane fuel bills!

I predict that in 2050 the Swans will win the Champions League by beating Barcelona 11 - 0 in the final. Prove me wrong.

John Dixon said...

I'm not convinced that it's now simply a Left/Right issue, although I'd accept that the 'right' is generally either more sceptical about AGW or else more convinced that the 'market' will eventually find a solution. Those two positions are not the same, of course.

And I think it's a bit of an oversimplification to say that "the Left uncritically (accepts) the predictions being made by scientists".

I do agree with you though that no-one can know with certainty what the world will be like in 2050; all predictions are based on probabilities derived from assumptions, and the failure to make that clear, and to thus present predictions with rather more certainty than they actually carry is unfortunate, to say the least.

Having said all that, I don't really think that the prediction of an 11-0 win for the Swans is in the same category as a prediction of climate change unless we change our ways. Your prediction is plucked from the air and based on hope; there is a good deal more science and analysis behind the predictions on climate. Not being able to prove that they're right doesn't make them wrong.

Drawing more attention to the level of unknowns in scientific pronouncements is one thing; but to endow them with the same level of credibility as your football forecast is going way too far.

My own position is essentially based on the precautionary principle - if we're significantly affecting the composition of the atmosphere without understanding what the outcome will be, we really ought to stop and think. The alternative position - that we can simply carry on until proved otherwise - is a dangerous approach.

Anonymous said...

I'd take the 'left' and the planet savers a little more seriously if they actually discussed openly and offered remedy for the greatest cause of pollution which is population growth.

Everything would be more manageable the smaller the population is. However, you'll never hear the Left discuss the need to reduce population growth in Sub Sahara Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, India etc - the places where people are getting poorer, women are dying young and more and more pollution will be created.

Instead we recycle a couple of things here when soil erosion, and ultimately pollution will be created by states who's population, like Ethiopia, has tripled in thirty years.

Smaller families would be better for money, the environment and would probably lessen one underlying reason for extreme and violent rebellion.

Sorry, until the left discuss population I don't bother listening. It's like discussing inflation without talking about the currency.

John Dixon said...


I'm quite happy to discuss the population question. We need to put the matter into context though. And 'offering remedy' is rather more difficult, and is probably why there is a tendency to avoid the issue - it's easier to concentrate on those things that are more easily changed.

The people in many of the areas you name are living close to a 'one-planet' lifestyle; that is, if everyone on the planet 'enjoyed' their living standards, the planet's resources would be adequate to cope. In the UK, on the other hand, we live, on average, a three planet lifestyle; that is, if everyone on the planet enjoyed the same standard of living, we'd need the resources of three planets to sustain us.

So, the problem isn't simply population per se, it's population plus an aspiration to an unsustainable lifestyle - we can either have a larger population with a lower standard of living, or a lower population with a higher standard of living (leaving aside, for the purposes of this response, that it is also possible to reduce the resource cost of any given standard of living).

And there are actually two separate drivers of increasing total population. Birth rates is one; but increased longevity is another - the mere fact of older people living longer increases the total population of the world even if the birth rate were to reduce to a more sustainable level. Whilst birth rates are the bigger part of the issue in many developing countries, we should not overlook the impact of longevity on more developed countries.

As to solutions, it seems to me that there is litle we can actually do about increasing longevity; it's the inevitable result of medical advances coupled with rising living standards. And, over time, longevity will increase in the developing world as well for the same reasons.

Birth rate is not something which is easily controllable either, and it is certainly not possible for one part of the world to impose a lower birth rate on another. There is, though, a strong correlation betwenn affluence and birth rate. As wealth increases, the initial response is a higher birth rate, but as it further increases, there is a marked drop in birth rate, so that the best way of reducing the overall wirld-wide birth rate is probably through increasing affluence.

That, though, brings us back to the question of life styles compared with total planetary resources - as I said, there is no easy solution.

Spirit of BME said...

Mr Dixon,
Your answer to Anon. an excellent political reply (you really should enter politics), but it’s devoid of an answer, based on what is actually happening in the real world.
Having seen Africa, India, Pakistan and the Middle East – several times over, overpopulation is a massive and ticking time bomb on many levels.
Anon. has got it right.

Anonymous said...

"Everything would be more manageable the smaller the population is. However, you'll never hear the Left discuss the need to reduce population growth in Sub Sahara Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, India etc - the places where people are getting poorer, women are dying young and more and more pollution will be created."

A fair point but the institutions that govern global economics (not to mention the governments in most of sub-saharan Africa, Pakistan, Yemen and India) are not under the control of the left. The economic orientation of the Third World is firmly towards the West and increasingly nowadays, China, despite attempts by isolated Third World countries to chart their own course (see Cuba, where the birth rate is relatively settled). The left (although who knows what specific politial current or power bloc you are referring to) generally supports sustainable development rather than capitalist growth. An understanding of population growth in the Third World needs an understanding of the economic relationships that those states are locked into. But it is right to say those that identify themselves as left do need to grapple with the issue of population growth and how and in whose interests the world's resources are managed.

John Dixon said...


I'm not sure what sort of answer you or the original Anon really expected. A cull, perhaps? Compulsory sterilisation? Enforcing China's 'one-child' policy on other countries?

Recognising that increasing population is a problem is the easy part. Recognising that the problem isn't restricted to a high birth rate in some parts of the world, because of the question of longevity, is a little harder. And proposing 'solutions' is harder still. The most reliable way of reducing birth rate is to increase living standards, which is the point I made in the previous response. But that also increases longevity, and necessarily involves a redistribution of resources.

And that last point, about the way resources are distributed, comes back to the point made by the other Anon, namely the need to tackle the question about "how and in whose interests the world's resources are managed".

Spirit of BME said...

When I first went around these countries, there were “natural culls” namely the sick and old were taken out early as medicine was not available or expected. On top of those natural disasters; aid agencies were not as efficient, which again reduced population.
All that is much improved, but what has not changed is old people`s (plus most women`s, throughout their lives) economic dependence in old age, as the State does not provide economic support. So, your bank in old age is the size of your family (preferably males, as they are the ones that have economic capacity).
Crack that cycle and these countries will prosper

Anonymous said...

Spirit says, "Crack that cycle and these countries will prosper."

Or, I might suggest, help these countries prosper and that cycle will crack. As John says, "the best way of reducing the overall wirld-wide birth rate is probably through increasing affluence."

Iwan Rhys

Anonymous said...

OK John - the biggest issue on the planet which will effect pollution and politics and ultimately Wales and the UK, and you have no answer except, it'll sort itself out, maybe. Oh, and the usual slighlty hysterical talk of 'cull' and 'one child policy' - which actually isn't strictly a one child policy.

Yes, those people in sub-Sahara Africa are not as wasteful as the west. That's why the west has to cut waste. But, one hopes, or I do at least, that their standard of living will improve, and when that happens, more energy will be consumed. Then there'll be a huge problem.

Create wealth and then birth rate will fall. Actually, there's study show that cut birth rate first and economy benefits, as does the lives of women and then democracy etc.

And you expect me to vote for you and other left wingers in Plaid Cymru?

I can't trust you.

John Dixon said...

"the biggest issue on the planet which will effect pollution and politics".

I’m not convinced that it is the biggest issue; I think that’s climate change. I agree with you that population growth is a factor in that, of course, but it isn’t the only factor. Merely getting that one factor under control, whilst use of resources per head continues to increase doesn’t necessarily have as much effect as might at first appear.

"you have no answer except, it'll sort itself out, maybe."

I don’t think that is a fair representation of what I said, which is that the best way to get birth rate under control is through increased affluence.

You seem to think that there is an easy answer which enables us to deal with increasing birth rates other than through economic means, but you haven’t told us what that is as yet. Whilst there are a lot of different issues surrounding birth rates, I’d identify the main two as being economic factors and cultural factors. I’ve concentrated on the economic factors, because those are the ones most amenable to outside influence. We can help other people and nations to improve their economic circumstances, but we cannot dictate their cultural (including religious) customs and beliefs.

"Create wealth and then birth rate will fall. Actually, there's study show that cut birth rate first and economy benefits, as does the lives of women and then democracy etc."

Quite possibly, but that brings us back to the point made above. It assumes that the first change is to the cultural influences not the economic ones. But it is the economic ones where we can have most impact.

"And you expect me to vote for you and other left wingers in Plaid Cymru?"

I don’t know quite where you get that idea from. I speak only for myself, and am not a candidate for election at any level.