Monday, July 12, 2010

Green Versus Green

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog, where it was first published in two parts (Part-I is here and Part-II is here). The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

Here's a pop quiz. A, B, C, and D are four rich industrialized countries in Western Europe with similar living standards. Country A's carbon dioxide emissions stand at 9.24 tonnes per capita per year. The corresponding figures for countries B, C, and D are 5.81, 5.62, and 5.05 tonnes a year, respectively.

Can you guess which of these four countries has become the darling of the environmental movement, hailed as a model for a low carbon economy?

It is country A, Denmark -- even though its per capita CO2 emissions are almost twice as much as countries B (France), C (Switzerland), and D (Sweden).

In a piece entitled "The Copenhagen that Matters", New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman speaks for many environmentalists when he says,

Denmark is the most energy efficient country in the E.U.; due to carbon pricing, through energy taxes, carbon taxes, the 'cap and trade' system, strict building codes and energy labeling programs. Renewable resources currently supply almost 30 percent of Denmark's electricity. Wind power is the largest source of renewable electricity, followed by biomass...

My fellow Americans, the fact that the recent Copenhagen climate summit was a bust in terms of solving our energy/climate problems doesn't mean that we can ignore those problems -- or that we can ignore how individual countries, like Denmark, have effectively addressed them.

There is no doubt that Danes emit far less CO2 than Americans. But compared to some other Western European countries, Denmark's performance is distinctly modest.

Sid's Emissions Table -5-26-10.png

Why then, do many greens hold up Denmark as the ideal low-carbon economy? Why not France, or Switzerland, or Sweden, which emit significantly less CO2 per capita?

The answer is that their preference for the Danish model has little to do with greenhouse gas emissions or with climate change, and more to do with the ideology and metaphysics of the Green movement.

In France, nuclear power accounts for about three quarters of all the electricity generated, while about 15 percent comes from hydro power. Switzerland gets about 55 percent of its electricity from hydro power and about 40 percent from nuclear. And in Sweden, about 45 percent comes from hydro power, while another 45 percent comes from nuclear power. Denmark, meanwhile, generates no nuclear power and very little hydro. A significant portion - some 30 percent - of Denmark's electricity is generated by wind power but still, much of the rest is generated by traditional coal power plants.

Among many environmentalists, nuclear energy and hydroelectricity are anathema even though they do not emit CO2. There tends to be particular hostility towards nuclear energy, even though the scientific and engineering evidence shows that modern nuclear power plants are safe, clean, and economical.

The green movement's antipathy towards nuclear power is part of a broader ideological distrust of scientific-technological fixes for solving our environmental problems. It is founded on a deep pessimism about human development, and scientific and technological progress.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

There can perhaps be no better example of ideological distrust of scientific-technological fixes than in the case of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Commonly known (somewhat misleadingly) as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), many greens abhor GE in agriculture with an intensity that matches or even exceeds their antipathy towards nuclear power.

GE food crops have been largely banned in Europe due to the opposition of environmentalists, but have been widely grown and consumed in the United States since 1996. More than 60 percent of field corn, 85 percent of soybean, 75 percent of canola, and 80 percent of cotton grown in the U.S. comes from GE crops. In all these years, GE crops have not been found to be any more harmful to humans or the environment than non-GE crops. On the contrary, the environmental benefits of GE crops have been substantial.

Crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (e.g., roundup-ready corn, roundup-ready soybean) have enabled farmers to adopt no-till and reduced-till farming practices, allowing for the conservation of topsoil, preservation of more natural vegetation, and sequestration of much of the soil organic carbon.

Crops that have been genetically engineered to be pest resistant (e.g., Bt Cotton, Bt Corn) have brought about dramatic reductions in chemical pesticide usage. For example, the introduction of Bt Cotton in India has caused chemical pesticide usage in the cotton crop to fall by half even as output has doubled.

Such achievements, significant though they are, merely scratch the surface of agricultural biotech's immense potential for doing environmental good. A promising new technology is a rice plant genetically engineered to be more efficient in utilizing nitrogen than conventional rice, thereby reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed by half. According to Greenpeace estimates, greenhouse gas emissions from the worldwide production and use of nitrogen fertilizer is equivalent to the total CO2 emissions from all the power plants in the United States. Nitrogen efficient GE crops could thus be crucial to mitigating climate change.

Agriculture - of any kind - is, by definition, a human intervention in nature with ambiguous environmental consequences. Agricultural biotechnology, with its potential to greatly increase marketable yields of existing farmlands, can play a major role in resisting the pressure to cultivate virgin land to feed a global population estimated to grow from six billion people now to nine billion people by 2050.

A Paradox

To anybody following the debate over nuclear power and GE crops, it soon becomes clear that the Green position on science and technology is rather paradoxical. On one hand, many Greens eagerly invoke science to emphasize the severity of our environmental problems, especially global warming. On the other hand, they are quick to reject scientific-technological fixes for these same environmental problems.

In the Green climate change narrative, great importance is given to scientific data and reasoning. When climate change skeptics question the seriousness of human induced climate change, arguing that the scientific evidence is insufficient, environmentalists respond (rightly, in my opinion) that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that global warming is indeed a real and serious problem. When it come to GE crops, however, their position is reversed. Here, Greens reject the overwhelming scientific evidence that GE crops are no more dangerous than non-GE crops and claim that the scientific evidence is not sufficient to make a reasonable determination.

Interestingly, Green rejection of scientific-technological fixes for environmental problems is structurally very similar to the rejection of climate science by global warming skeptics.

The fact of the matter is that science is not in the business of absolute certainties -- that is the domain of religious revelations. Science can never establish with absolute certainty that climate change is human induced and will be devastating if left unchecked. Science is no more than a certain outlook and a certain technique ('the scientific method') that uses reason, observation, and experimentation to investigate phenomena and acquire or modify knowledge of the material world. It is a reasonable scientific inference, based on the available evidence, that human-induced climate change is real and serious. It is also a reasonable evidence-based scientific inference that GE crops are not inherently more harmful to humans or the environment than non-GE crops. Indeed, the level of scientific certainly regarding the safety of GE crops is far greater than any long-term prognosis regarding climate change, if only because it is so much easier to conduct controlled scientific experiments with GE crops than with the global climate.

This science/anti-science paradox is evident in Al Gore's celebrated documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." The entire movie takes the form of Gore delivering a science lecture, arguing that human induced climate change represents a clear and compelling danger. In criticizing climate change skeptics, Gore denounces ideological influences on science, comparing it with Soviet practices.

Gore recommends a solution proposed by scientists Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala -- the only policy framework for global warming mitigation discussed in the movie. This approach calls for reducing CO2 emissions by using a using a combination of seven "stabilization wedges," or techniques, e.g. more efficient vehicles and carbon capture and storage. In the movie, Gore graphs how the wedges can reduce CO2 emissions but he makes one glaring omission: Socolow and Pacala's approach calls for seven wedges while Gore shows only six. The missing wedge? Nuclear power.

Paradoxically, even while emphasizing the scientific evidence for climate change, Gore deliberately ignores a scientific-technological fix that could help solve it.

The Scientific Basis of Environmentalism

Modern American environmentalism was born in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Carson was a scientist and much of the book is a scientific argument about the harmful effects of chemical pesticides.

The book is replete with scientific data, quotes from scientists, and scientific reasoning. In fact, the entire concluding chapter is an impassioned plea to adopt new biology based breakthrough technologies to replace chemical pesticides.

According to Carson,

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing - entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists - all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

Carson characterized chemical pesticides of the time as "Neanderthal" technologies, belonging to the "stone age of science". Clearly, the implication was not that we should replace chemical pesticides with even more ancient Jurassic-era technologies, but rather that we supplant them with advanced biology-based breakthrough technologies that are more environmentally friendly.

In a lecture a few months after the publication of Silent Spring, Carson remarked,

I criticize the present methods because they are based on a rather low level of scientific thinking. We really are capable of much greater sophistication in our solution of this problem.

Silent Spring's influence on the nascent environmental movement is well documented but its call for biology based alternatives to chemical pesticides had a deep influence on another group as well: pioneering scientists working in the fledgling field of agricultural biotechnology. In Lords of the Harvest, a book in which Dan Charles traces the origins of genetically engineered crops, he writes,

Pam Marrone, a researcher at Monsanto during the late 1980s [says] ... "I remember having lunch with [then-CEO] Dick Mahoney and him saying, 'Because of parathion [a particularly hazardous insecticide], I don't ever want to be in chemicals again. And that's why we're in biotechnology.'" ...

"During these years, all of us who went into biology were influenced by the wave of environmentalism," says Willy de Greef, who worked for Plant Genetic Systems in Belgium ... "The idea was reduce chemicals with biologicals or with genetics." Fred Perlak of Monsanto says ... "We were all the children of the sixties and the seventies. We'd all read Silent Spring; we knew the connection between 2-4-D [a common herbicide] and 2-4-5-T, Agent Orange."

Ever since Carson other prominent scientist-environmentalists have tended to support scientific-technological fixes for our environmental problems. James Lovelock, best known for his Gaia hypothesis, is an enthusiastic and active proponent of nuclear energy as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

James Hansen, well known for his pioneering work in climate science, is another prominent scientist-environmentalist who favors nuclear power. His Congressional testimony on climate change played a key role in bringing global warming to the forefront of public awareness. According to Hansen,

The scientific method requires that we keep an open mind and change our conclusions when new evidence indicates that we should. The new evidence affecting the nuclear debate is climate change, specifically the urgency of moving beyond fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources. We need an urgent, substantial research and development program on fourth-generation nuclear power.

Yet another prominent scientist-environmentalist in favor of technological fixes for our environmental problems is naturalist and biodiversity guru E.O. Wilson -- a strong proponent of genetically engineered crops. According to him,

The problem before us is how to feed billions of new mouths over the next several decades and save the rest of life at the same time ... Most scientists and economists who have studied both sides of it agree that the benefits [of GE crops] outweigh the risks. The benefits must come from an evergreen revolution... Genetic engineering will almost certainly play an important role in the evergreen revolution.

The Anti-Scientific Basis of Environmentalism

Environmentalism, as Western industrialized world knows it, arose in the 1960s and 70s, ushered in by the unprecedented material prosperity of the post-war decades. In accordance with Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of needs, people in the prosperous industrialized world, having satisfied their basic material needs for food, water, shelter, and security sought to satisfy higher order postmaterial needs such as achieving a sense of fulfillment and purpose. In stark contrast to the progressive era, which took a positive view of progress and the spread of material prosperity driven by scientific-technological advances and industrial growth, the Green movement began to view such progress as an encroachment upon nature's inherent purity. Scientific-technological interventions in nature - even scientific knowledge itself - came to be seen negatively, a mark of human hubris. In the view of many Greens, mankind's vain attempts to to play God with nature, or even to understand nature's mysteries, inevitably cause more harm than good.

As celebrated eco-feminist Vandana Shiva puts it,

"It is thus not just 'development' which is a source of violence to women and nature ... at a deeper level, scientific knowledge, on which the development process is based, is itself a source of violence."

This new era with its new outlook may be called the post-progressive era.

Even Silent Spring is not devoid of the post-progressive "human progress destroying the balance of nature" viewpoint. The first chapter, "A Fable for Tomorrow," has a distinct fall-from-Eden quality, which can be (and has been) interpreted as a plea to revert to a pre-technological pre-modern past.

Since modern environmentalism arose in response to postmaterial, rather then material needs, it is not surprising that its emphasis is on metaphysics, morality, and character, instead of material, pragmatic solutions to real world problems. The green movement is thus more about feeling good, being virtuous, and doing the "right" thing, rather than about achieving measurable material outcomes in a practical, pragmatic manner. It is more about utopian aspirations than tangible material achievements.

Environmentalism, for many, has become something akin to a religious faith. In their book Breakthrough, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus compare evangelical Christianity with green enviro-religiosity,

Both tell stories of humankind's fall, one from Eden and the other from Nature. Both tell revenge fantasies about a future apocalypse that serves as punishment for humankind's sins against either God or Nature. And both reward true believers with the warm glow of feeling morally superior to non-believers.

Enviro-religionists believe, at some level, that the climate change is an outward manifestation of a deeper problem: humankind's turn away from nature and towards "immorality", as exemplified by excessive consumption and rampant materialism. They see scientific-technological fixes, such as nuclear power or genetically engineered crops, as either irrelevant or even harmful since they focus too much on the material aspects of the problem and divert attention from the real problem of reforming our ethics.

Green Materialism Versus Green Morality

The environmental movement tends to emphasize Green morality over green pragmatism. A pragmatic and materialistic green outlook would emphasize concrete emissions reductions and welcome scientific-technological solutions. Today's Green morality, however, has a different orientation; its primarily emphasis is on transforming our morality and character irrespective of direct material impact on the environment.

A good illustration of this phenomenon of green morality is Earth Hour. Billed as the "largest climate event in history," it is an annual event in which people are supposed to turn off their lights for one designated hour to "show support for our planet and our future." It is obvious to all that Earth Hour has no significant material impact on greenhouse gas emissions. After all, the coal-fired power plants that generate much of our electricity and are the worst emitters of greenhouse gas emissions cannot simply be turned off and on within an hour.

Earth Hour is all about symbolism, but for what? A symbol for replacing modern electric lights with far less energy efficient technologies like candles? A symbol for abandoning scientific-technological progress and returning to the dark ages?

In the end, it is no more than a spectacle to make some feel morally superior while completely ignoring the real issue of vastly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The dichotomy between the materialistic and the moralistic approaches to solving our environmental problems is analogous to our societal response to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). On one hand, there are those who see AIDS in largely materialistic terms and advocate scientific-technological solutions, such as promoting the use of condoms, funding medical research, and making advanced anti-AIDS drugs more widely available. On the other hand, there are those who see AIDS primarily as a problem that should be addressed at the level of morality and character rather than through scientific-technological fixes. They believe that the disease is just an outward manifestation of a deeper problem: humankind's turn away from God and towards "immorality" as exemplified by sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, etc.

This is not to suggest that morality is not important. Morality gives us a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and, if properly managed, it can create the conditions necessary to nurture the ideas and innovation necessary to develop effective scientific-technological fixes for our environmental problems. But when the morality becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, it can be more harmful than helpful in achieving tangible results, as when Denmark is hailed as the ideal "low carbon economy" though its carbon emissions are relatively high by regional standards. Even worse, the overemphasis on a contrived Green morality alienates those who are seriously concerned about climate change but are nevertheless skeptical of this post-progressive Green morality, thereby undermining the public consensus necessary for serious action on climate change.