Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 5: Observation on Environmental Issue Stakeholders

This one of a series of background posts for my perception of pragmatic environmentalists.

Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 5: The more vociferous/louder the claims made by a stakeholder the more likely that the stakeholder is guilty of the same thing. This observation was also described by Gary: “My experience is that the things people complain about loudly are so very frequently the same things of which they also are guilty. The inability to see oneself realistically is a fascinating human trait.”

The poster child for this particular behavior is Dr. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science, Penn State University and Director, Penn State Earth System Science Center. On March 29, 2017 he gave testimony before the Committee on Science, Space and Technology that illustrates this phenomenon in three ways.

I prepared a table summarizing Michael Mann testimony with general categories for the contents. There were 26 paragraphs. Dr. Mann used 4 paragraphs to describe his background. Thirteen paragraphs described either “anti-science” attacks on him or Dr. Thomas Karl and his rebuttals to those attacks, two paragraphs attacked other scientists and seven of the 26 paragraphs addressed the science of climate change.

The first example of Principle 5 is the matter of personal attacks which are bad if they directed to him but OK if he is doing the attacking. The majority of his testimony addresses what he characterizes as “anti-science” attacks on him. He notes that “Science critics will therefore often select a single scientist to ridicule, hector, and intimidate.” However, his testimony then ridicules three out of the four individuals at the hearing because they “represent that tiny minority that reject this consensus or downplay its significance”. I think it is reprehensible and clear intimidation to label Dr. Judith Curry as a “climate science denier” equating her views of the consensus on climate change as equivalent to those who deny the Holocaust. He notes “I use the term carefully—reserving it for those who deny the most basic findings of the scientific community, which includes the fact that human activity is substantially or entirely responsible for the large-scale warming we have seen over the past century”.

The second example is the scientific debate on climate change. Dr. Mann invokes the 97% consensus argument that “of scientists publishing in the field have all concluded, based on the evidence, that climate change is real, is human-caused, and is already having adverse impacts on us, our economy, and our planet”.  But then goes on to say “there is indeed a robust, healthy, and respectful debate among scientists when it comes to interpreting data and testing hypotheses”. Obviously no debate is possible interpreting any data or hypotheses that climate change is human-caused. I am also troubled by his lack of qualifiers for what the referenced 97% consensus actually referred to.

The third example is the proper channel for scientific debate. Dr. Mann states “True scientists are skeptics—real skeptics, contesting prevailing paradigms and challenging each other, in the peer-reviewed literature, at scientific meetings, and in seminars—the proper channels for good faith scientific debate.” However, he “proves” that James Hansen famous predictions from the 1980’s and 1990’s were successful by referencing the Real Climate blog. In Congressional testimony he mentions “the huge potential costs if the impacts turn out to be even greater than predicted, something that appears to be the case now with the potential rapid collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the increased sea level rise that will come with it.” His citation is a newspaper article “Climate Model Predicts West Antarctic Ice Sheet Could Melt Rapidly” by Justin Gillis, New York Times, March 30, 2016. Two examples of precisely the improper channel he was alluding to in his description of good faith scientific debate.

One final point regarding this testimony. Dr. Mann notes that he coined the term “Serengeti strategy” to characterize his attackers. He describes this as when special interests “single out individual scientists to attack in much the same way lions of the Serengeti single out an individual zebra from the herd”. He is blissfully unaware that his moral of the story “In numbers there is strength, but individuals are far more vulnerable” may not be the whole story. My impression is that the lions single out the weakest link in the herd: the old, the sick, the young and, dare I say it, the one with the weakest arguments.

Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 4: We can do almost anything we want, but we can’t do everything.

This is a background post for my perception of pragmatic environmentalists per the principles listed in the about section of this blog.

Environmental initiatives often are presented simply as things we can do. Over at Climate Etc. the Planning Engineer coined this statement when he said that when his children asked “Can we do this?” he used to annoy his children with the answer “We can do almost anything we want, but we can’t do everything.” They came to learn that response meant that something “unthinkable” would likely have to be given up to indulge the extravagance.

This is a fundamental aspect of pragmatic environmentalism. While it is fine and appropriate to propose actions to reduce environmental risks that are technologically feasible, in the real world the costs to implement those policies carry costs that have to be considered. Moreover there could be unintended consequences.

As the Planning Engineer explains in his blog post: “There is no bargain to be found by pushing jointly for both more microgrids and the greater integration of “clean” resources. Having both will require huge sacrifices. If society’s utmost desire is a “clean”, highly reliable grid, resilient, secure grid – we likely can build that at some enormous cost. However, if cost is a factor impacting electric supply then tradeoffs will have to be made from among competing goals and technologies.”

Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 3: Baloney Asymmetry Principle

This is a background post for my perception of pragmatic environmentalists per the principles listed in the about section of this blog.

I updated this on May 8, 2017 to add references for the lake effect snowstorm example and lake temperature data.

Alberto Brandolini: “The amount of energy necessary to refute BS is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

Brandolini’s link is to a presentation on the problem and includes recommendations for dealing with it in the context of the managerial leadership. However it is directly relevant to environmental issues as well.

Consider this example of global warming causing severe weather. In November 2014 there was a massive lake-effect snow storm in Western New York. New York’s Attorney General said the snowstorm was evidence of needed action on climate change. Slate followed the event with an article “proving” the claim.

In order to repudiate the global warming trigger claim the lake effect mechanism has to be explained and the relevant data from the event compiled. The Slate article explained that lake effect snow is caused by a temperature difference between a body of water and the air over the lake. The BS claim is that because the water is warmer then the storm was worse. However the alignment of the wind with the lake, the depth of the cold air layer, and the change of wind direction with height all contribute to the severity of a lake effect snowstorm.

To repudiate the BS claim these other factors have to be explained and the necessary data to show how they affected the storm compiled and presented. It turns out that the primary factor causing the extraordinary snow amounts with this particular storm was that the wind direction stayed constant for much longer than normal. That being the case how did global warming contribute to constant winds? Moreover, when I checked the actual lake temperature with the average lake temperature it was more or less the same as the average. The Slate article relied on average temperature data but not the data from the event.   If global warming were the cause then why wasn’t the lake warmer than average during the event?

Update May 8, 2017: References for the lake effect snowstorm example and lake temperature

Lake Effect Snowstorm November 17 – 19, 2014

Average Lake Erie Temperature Period of Record 1992 – 2016

  • November 19: 9.7 deg. C
  • November 20: 9.5 deg. C
  • November 21: 9.4 deg. C

Actual Lake Erie Temperature during the event – All three days were colder than average!

  • November 19, 2014: 8.9 deg. C
  • November 20, 2014: 8.2 deg. C
  • November 21, 2014: 7.5 deg. C


Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 2: Sound Bite Environmental Issue Descriptions

This is a background post for my perception of pragmatic environmentalists per the principles listed in the about section of this blog.

Sound bite descriptions necessarily only tell one side of the story because they have to fit space available. As a result they frequently are mis-leading, not nuanced, or flat out wrong.

Sound bites are brief recorded statements (as by a public figure) broadcast especially on a television news program or a brief catchy comment or saying. In this principle, I would expand the definition to include the core information that “everyone knows” about a particular topic. In today’s society they unfortunately represent an inordinate share of the public’s knowledge of an environmental issue.

In my, admittedly limited, experience trying to describe a technical issue or project to the press or a public relations person the interview often led to innocent mis-characterizations. If the audience does not have relevant background and you are not experienced talking to that kind of audience to include appropriate background information, the resulting sound bite can be mis-leading.

Because there are space and time constraints there is no room for the background caveats to explain the nuances of the issue. This limitation also can be primarily innocent.

However, there can be more sinister implications to the sound bite when the story is politically motivated or fits the agenda of an organization. In these cases noble cause corruption can lead the author of the sound bite to deliberately characterize the issue incorrectly by selectively choosing the information included and not including key caveats.

Whatever the cause, the problem for pragmatic environmentalists is that correcting the record won’t be a sound bite so the audience that only has the patience to hear the sound bite may ignore the correction or lose interest in the complete story. Moreover space or time may not even be available to provide the clarifying information.

Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 1: Environmental Issues are Binary

This is a background post for my perception of pragmatic environmentalists per the principles listed in the about section of this blog.

In almost all environmental issues there are two legitimate sides. Pragmatic environmentalism is all about balancing the risks and benefits of both sides of the issue. In order to do that you have to show your work.

While this might seem patently obvious presented in this fashion consider how often the public discourse on an environmental issue is just a long list of environmental impacts that “everyone knows” and suggestions that those impacts will be catastrophic.

Consider this example: “For decades, power plants in our communities here in Western Queens have strongly contributed to increased asthma rates and increases in hospitalizations and ER visits that exceed the average in Queens,” said Councilman Costa Constantinides.

It is generally accepted that asthma rates have been increasing but the problem is that over the same period where they are increasing ambient pollution levels have been going down. Consider the EPA Air Quality Trends at New York City information that shows that from 2000 to 2015 ozone is down 16.7%, inhalable particulate matter is down 31.7% and sulfur dioxide is down 85.1%. These data suggest that increasing asthma rates are not the result of increasing pollution rates contradicting the environmental impact that “everyone knows” causes increasing asthma rates. For a comprehensive evaluation of the EPA science related to particulate matter health impacts I recommend “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA”.

Pragmatic environmentalists recognize that air pollution causes health impacts. However the risk that additional societal investments for increased pollution control could not provide the intended benefits has to be considered. In particular, if society spends money to reduce power plant emissions below the rates that have contributed to the lower observed pollution levels it may not improve asthma rates and worse may divert money that more appropriately should be invested into research determining why asthma rates are increasing so that the actual causes can be addressed.