Monday, June 10, 2002

I seem to be prey to (or beneficiary of ?) a lot of nameless posters lately. I'm not sure whether that's by choice or whether YACSS is on the fritz, but it's too bad, because the comments I've read by said nameless posters are often really good ones. One wrote a response to that whole Jane Galt thing that I found echoed my own response (albeit somewhat less charitable).

Jane's post demonstrates one of the down sides of blogging: 3,879 words (Methodology: MS Word word-count tool, tables excluded) to support an irrelevant premise. She has done a convincing job of demonstrating a correlation between CO2 emissions and economic growth, a point which should come as no surprise to anyone.

But as the previous commentor notes, correlation does not imply causation. Two correlated phenomena CAN imply a relationship with a third causal phenomenon, as is the case here: economic growth and CO2 emissions have both been related to energy consumption. But Jane makes a false causal connection between the two and furthermore treats it as the only causal factor, with all of the "how much would we have to cut our standard of living to get back to 1950 emission levels" reasoning.

Energy consumption is related to economic growth and so is technological innovation, and energy consumption can be affected by technological innovation. This is the point most of MY little green buddies argue: energy conservation is what you do to buy time while you're developing new energy technology. And is Jane really so pessimistic as to take the position that future economic growth must necessarily decline just as surely as fossil fuel extraction must necessarily become less efficient?

If this comment weren't already too long, I'd also make the case that p.c. GDP is a poor measure of standard of living.

Jane makes much of the importance of having the data to back up your arguments, which is admirable. But what they teach scientists and apparently fail to teach MBA's is that working out the logic of your arguments first saves you from a lot of unproductive data analysis later.

Or, in other words, the numbers don't mean squat if the underlying premises by which those numbers are produced and/or analyzed is flawed. No surprise there: metric assloads of crank "scholarship" (up to and including the Bell Curve) were based on numbers built on ludicrous concepts.

Am I accusing Jane of this? Not really; my big beef was that she seemed to be pulling numbers out of the air, and was making a lot of bald assertions unsupported by anything even remotely resembling citation- which is strange, as the Internet is by far the easiest place to find citation mankind has yet invented- and I don't accept assertions of "trust me, I know more than you" any more than anybody else in this sometimes-untrustworthy medium. Besides, I don't appear to need to accuse her; the comments section attached to that post is bloating up to sizes I doubt YACSS ever planned for. (Good stuff, too).

I'm also rather perplexed by a few of her other unquantified assertions. The one that said energy can't be transported or stored, for example: isn't the storage of non-carbon-based energy the entire point of fuel cells? I've even seen designs based on (of all things) flywheels... friction is a problem, but we're talking about CO2 here, not lost energy... the energy that is produced will reduce CO2 even if it doesn't increase overall energy efficiency. Same question about the idea that variable strength pressure-based generation is useless... couldn't you simply back up these systems with carbon-based systems, and still cut emissions way, way down? Even if a windmill only worked 40% of the time, that's 40% of the time that you're not burning coal, oil, or what-have-you, and with the transport abilities we do have, a windmill in one area could support a solar panel in another, which could support a tidal mechanism elsewhere, and a geothermic somewhere else. Carbon could be reserved for occasions where none of the other ones are taking up the slack. Heck, you could even use a marketplace mechanism for this simply by ratcheting up a carbon tax and therefore having carbon only appear when energy from elsewhere gets too expensive. (Or using the emissions trading scheme... the carbon you've "spent" could be made up for by a windmill/tidal/whatever somewhere else in the world, leaving total energy consumption at the same level).

In any case, my focus is on politics, not economics, although there's no getting away from the fact that the two are intricately linked and I must betray an interest in economics as it relates to political interaction and debate. Given the choice, I'd prefer to talk about the political implications of something like global warming rather than bury into the numbers. That being said, the Internet is not the place to make statements of fact you can't back up, and citation or explanation is usually pretty bloody easy.. thanks to linking (and little javascript windows like the comments one on this page) you don't even need to clutter up the main screen doing it, so that those who don't want to wade through the math and graphs and methodology don't have to. I dislike playing the scapegoat, but I'm always in favour of verifiable arguments. This isn't about ego... I'm willing to put up with the one in order to ensure the other.

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