I had thought that once I graduated college, annoying student publications would quit being so… annoying. Alas, this isn’t the case. A previous article examined the quality of analysis at the Carolina Review, UNC’s ‘journal of conservative thought and opinion'; let’s see if things have approved any in the handful of years that I’ve been away.
Okay, checking their blog… mhmm… skim the headlines, clickety clicky….
The linked article describes environmentalism as factually challenged and lacking a vision of “the overall big picture”; let us categorically examine the main evidence presented in support of this thesis:
- “global warming, or climate change, or whatever they feel like calling it now” has been grossly exaggerated.
- Lighter cars are inherently more dangerous than gas-guzzlers.
- Recycling is bad.
- Fossil fuels can be greenwashed.
Ready? Let’s go.
“Why is [head of NASA's GISS program and accomplished geophysicist Dr. James] Hanson [sic] so important?” – Carolina Review columnist Alex Thomas
I was disappointed by the coverage of climate change. I expected it to be lousy, and it was, but I didn’t expect it to be so… unsatisfying. The only evidence presented is the claim that Dr. Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony was critically flawed, greatly overestimating the amount of temperature change to come. This is a PRATT, a Point Refuted A Thousand Times, so my treatment will be a bit superficial. (For more detail, read this)
A climate simulation isn’t a magickal box that spits out numbers. In order to run it, you have to input certain parameters, like how bright the sun is, the greenhouse gas concentrations, and so on. For the past you might have direct measurements or proxy records; the future is not only unwritten, but contingent upon human agency. So you have to come up with plausible scenarios for what’s coming. Maybe we cut down on fossil fuel usage; maybe we ramp it up; maybe we relax clean air standards; maybe we have a nuclear war. You run the scenarios you’re interested in on climate models, and you compare, contrast, and interpret the output. One of the scenarios that Dr. Hansen used (“Scenario A”) overestimated greenhouse gas emissions – but not carbon dioxide. Scenario A assumed that we continued to emit CFCs, which are potent greenhouse gasses. Because they threatened the ozone layer, CFCs were phased out under the Montreal Protocols, which went into effect in 1989 – the year after Hansen’s testimony. Nowhere in the Carolina Review article do we hear about such confounding factors, nor the general success of government regulation in cutting down on ozone depletors. Nor is there mention that Scenarios B and C match observations well (see above), nor that Hansen’s 1981 predictions were freakinshly accurate. * Also, why is Dr. Hansen important? Because he was an adviser to Al Gore, of course!
“Usually investigators only present and discuss the risk to occupants of the car or truck in question—as if society at large has no stake in the mayhem caused by some vehicles as long as those riding in them aren’t themselves killed.” – Wenzel and Ross 2008
The article uses climate change as a pivot point to launch into an attack on fuel efficiency. Light, fuel efficient cars, the argument goes, have less momentum and less structural strength than the heavier SUVs, for intuitive physical reasons, and thus offer less protection in a crash. This is certainly plausible, but the bigger picture is always more complicated – and interesting! Although the Carolina Review claims that “Lighter cars are more dangerous for people, and contribute to more deaths of people,” their cited source actually reports on a slightly different measurement: the death rate to the drivers themselves. This is of course an important consideration, but it’s hardly the only or the most important. Also important is whether the car prevents driver injury, whether it protects the passengers, and the damage it deals to the motorists, pedestrians, and wildlife it collides with. A car designed with sharp metal hood ornaments or dash knobs might kill a bicyclist or give the driver a nasty gash; an explosive rear gas tank might incinerate passengers but allow drivers to escape; a heavy van built on top of two long metal spears might punch through the side of a subcompact but cushion its driver from anything but bruises. None of these designs are ‘safe’, but could well have low driver death rates. (Incidentally, that last example is not an exaggeration – the industry term for SUV design is ‘aggressive’, and for a reason.)
It seems extremely plausible that part of the reason that small, light cars are unsafe to people in them is that SUVs are unsafe to people outside of them! Automobile safety is much more complex and much more optimistic than CRDaily’s ‘big picture’ narrative: a recent analysis (Wenzel and Ross 2008) found that “drivers are just as safe in cars as they are in SUVs and pickups. This result is easily explained: Although the risk of dying in a collision is often lower in SUVs and pickups, their high center of gravity makes them more susceptible to rollovers.” ** They also found no particular reason to support the idea of an engineering trade-off between gas mileage and safety. The whole thing is very interesting and readable – check it out! (My favorite part is their discussion of pickup truck deaths.)
“Isn’t it nice that while recycling has to be picked up, garbage just evaporates once you put in in the dumpster?” – Peter Coffey
That pretty much sums up the Carolina Review’s argument against recycling, actually. They point out, correctly, that energy, infrastructure, and time have to be invested in order to recycle our waste. But the default alternative is garbage, which also requires fuel, infrastructure, and time to process, while also requiring ever-bigger landfills and a heavy diet of raw materials. (Reducing consumption and production are of course unthinkable, because The Economy, dammit. Besides, what about the vibrant dumpster-diving ecosystems we’d destroy?)
Actually, they go one step further and tell us that recycling is *worse* than just throwing out our garbage: “ recycling actually INCREASES greenhouse gas emissions. [...] Recycling newsprint actually creates more water pollution than just making new paper.” It seemed a bit hard to believe that virgin paper production (cutting down trees, letting topsoil wash into streams and creeks, bleaching the wood pulp, etc) was less polluting than recycling newsprint, (in principle safe enough to be an elementary school activity.) Five minutes on Teh Google confirmed my suspicions: this talking point, the National Resources Defense Council explains,“is, simply, absurd. Far from producing more hazardous pollution than virgin mills, modern paper recycling mills produce virtually no hazardous air or water pollution or hazardous wastes.” The source the Carolina Review presents is a sketchy-looking New York Times opinion piece, apparently heavily influenced by the Cato Institute. It claims that “for each ton of recycled newsprint that’s produced, an extra 5,000 gallons of waste water are discharged.” Nope! the NRDC reports that “new paper mills that recycle 100 percent newsprint do not even consume or discharge a total of 5,000 gallons of water per ton of manufactured product,” let alone an additional 5 kGal. “ By contrast, the virgin “pulp and paper industry is the largest industrial process water user in the United States.”“
“I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality … Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that.” – George Carlin
Our final moment of wisdom from the Carolina Review is their defense of fossil fuel mining. It’s not that bad, right? After all, “companies like Peabody Energy … have actually restored thousands of acres of mined lands”.
We are expected to believe that a bit of landscaping can undo the demolition of a half-billion year old mountain range.
Even if mining could be cleaned up, coal would still be dirty. Restoring mine sites doesn’t do anything about the toxic ash that remains waiting to flood nearby communities. “The solution from a conservative’s stand point is to let the companies develop better technologies,” we learn, but a fossil fuel company is premised upon carbon emissions – better technologies alone aren’t going to address the deeper issues at work.
Finally, even after noting a dramatic counterexample (BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill), they argue that energy CEOs’ self interest will prevent environmental damage. “It seems like they fail to realize that even oil executives live in the same world as us, and even drink the same water we do.” This is absurd – in many respects, the people who have extraordinary wealth, the 1% of the Occupy analysis, do not live in the same world as the rest of us. No Dow Chemical exec drinks the same water as the children in Bhopal, India. Oil spills and coral reef collapse makes them grumble about the price of luxuries; it doesn’t undermine their entire food supply. When record-setting heat waves hit, they have air conditioned houses to retreat to; the homeless do not, to say nothing of the third world. Their dogs don’t die of heat stroke.
“[U]sing false statistics, making cars more unsafe, and failing to realize all programs sponsored by a company is not the solid foundation for a debate.” – Alex Thomas
So the conclusion? Carolina Review’s online articles are better than their print. Not only do they not require recycling, there’s no danger of getting in trouble if you repurpose/reuse/upcycle them!
*During the writing of this article, Hurricane Sandy faceplanted on the East coast, fulfilling another of Hansen’s predictions – the flooding of West Side Highway.
** The original source cited (Edmunds.com) does briefly mention these factors, but treatment is qualitative and not very satisfying.
Wenzel, T., & Ross, M. (2008). Safer Vehicles for People and the Planet American Scientist, 96 (2) DOI: 10.1511/2008.70.3638