Dienstag, November 25, 2008

Obama And The Apocalypse...and The Need To COP-Out

Wow. This is about as over-the-top as I have seen in a long time, and deserves a closer look.

Ian McEwan wrote it.

Who the heck is Ian McEwan? He's a writer, a novelist. And one of some reclaim, apparently.

But he's also symptomatic of the false expectations not only of the left, but of the greens as well.

The title of the essay, with subtitle, is:

The world's last chance

After years of living in fear of climate change, we are fast acquiring the weapons to defeat it. But the only one who can unite humanity for this life-or-death struggle is Barack Obama - and he must act now.

As the Germans say: Ach Du Lieber Himmel. Or more appropriately:WTF?

So the fisking begins:

'I refute it thus!" was Samuel Johnson's famous, beefy riposte one morning after church in 1763. As he spoke, according to his friend James Boswell, he kicked "with mighty force" a large stone "till he rebounded from it". The good doctor was contesting Bishop Berkeley's philosophical idealism, the view that the external, physical world does not exist and is the product of the mind. It was never much of a disproof, but we can sympathise with its sturdy common sense and physical display of Anglo-Saxon, if not Anglican, pragmatism.

Ah, that old chestnut, the difference between continental philosophy and rationalists of England. The difference between "reality" and perception, the stuff of philosophers. Nice start, but what's the point? That whilst Samuel Johnson is incapable of disproving what the good Bishop has spoken of, his common sense and pragmatism is something to be sympathized with. McEwan is setting the stage for what follows: it's not about reality, but rather one man's failure to disprove an assumption, however sympathetic the attempt might have been.

Still, we may have proved Berkeley partially correct; in an age of electronic media, where rumour, opinion and fact are tightly interleaved, and where politicians must sing to compete for our love, public affairs have the quality of a waking dream, a collective solipsism whose precise connection to the world of kickable stones is obscure, though we are certain that it exists.

Yep, the world of the left and the greens: there is no substance there, no clear delineation between facts, opinion and rumor - not because the author fails to make them, but rather because the public can't. Politics has become a waking dream, a collective solipsism - now there's a contradiction in terms! - which has no real connections to the "real" world. In other words, the right and marketable illusions trumps all else, especially reality and the cold, hard facts: the only problem is that this isn't reality. It's the world of the delusional left, the delusional greens, who have actively rejected reality and eschewed empiricism so as to create their waking dream, where intent excuses incompetence and adherence to the dogma that makes up the waking dream is a prerequisite. They know that there is a reality out there: they just don't want to deal with it.

The contest for the US presidency, like all elections, had the self-enclosed quality of a squash game, a chess match, a postmodern novel - and this one was far better than most. While the candidates appeared to address an external reality, they were bound by strictly ethereal requirements: to cast spells on large crowds while seeming ordinary, to trample their opponent into oblivion while seeming pleasant, to be inspirational yet sensible, to avoid offending a score of sensitive constituencies, and, an old wizard's touch, to promise the electorate various gifts without further borrowing or raising taxes.

Bread and circus, then for the body politic.Politics is a game, something to play with, not something real: an intellectual playground. Indicative of the appalling simplicity and, really, silliness of the left and greens: it's all about illusions and fooling the sheeple. What naivete.

And to win. As Barack Obama steps forward, the smoke machines and mirrors are packed away - or perhaps we can never, or should never, let them go. To those who believe that climate change in the context of global poverty is our most pressing problem, underpinning all others, requiring degrees of cooperation and rationality we might not even be capable of, the elevation of this slender, handsome man becomes the object of unreal expectation. Inevitably, after a long campaign of crowd pleasing, the question hangs in the air: is he merely the expert coiner of a stirring speech, or does he have the steel to turn intentions into results? At the very least, America finally has a president who, whatever his profession of faith, has a high regard for science (look at his sturdy views on intelligent design in Nature magazine of September 25) and has surrounded himself with scientific advisers of impeccable quality, and committed himself to the dreamy target of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels of CO2 emissions by 2050.

Here is the key, the reason I am fisking this: the demand that reality never intrude. The phrase tells it all: the commitment to a dreamy target. But there is at the same time the warning: the object of unreal expecations.

The issue of climate change is itself another near-virtual reality. Ever since 1979, when James Hansen's Ad Hoc Group on CO2 reported to President Carter, there have been symposia, denials, summits, documentaries, marches, legislation, trading schemes and, above all, resounding speeches high on ambition - in Europe we rather excel at these.

Again, the avoidance of reality, plus the idea that the issue of climate change is near-virtual, "another" reality. What Europe really excels at is the hypocrisy of making pledges that no one can keep without impoverishing millions. But that's another reality.

However, on the all-too-kickable stone we call the Earth, where results from thousands of measurements in oceans and on land masses are mapped against satellite data, the mean temperature has continued to rise. In 2006, and even more in 2007, the shrinking of the summer ice in the Arctic exceeded the gloomiest predictions. Data for the past year, during an economic downturn, show CO2 levels rising as fast as ever. It is doubtful whether there is yet a single recorded instance of a carbon-producing power station taken out of commission to make way for a clean energy installation.

Sigh. The data, the data, the data: see my last post here for how the data is being manipulated and changed. This is the most alarming problem: that the data is being manipulated to meet expectations.

The burning forests, the dissolving coral reefs, the extinction of species - we have numbed ourselves with these familiar litanies. During the past 30 years we have dealt with the issue, if at all, only in our minds. There are, of course, first signs of a new clean energy infrastructure - along certain stretches of the Danish coastline, on some German and Japanese rooftops, in certain deserts - but the effect so far is miniscule. We are still dreaming, still murmuring in our sleep as we grope for the levers that connect thoughts to actions.

Dreaming indeed: how bitter it must be for the dedicated, the prophets of the new religion, to be - quite rightly so - ignored and how grating it must be for those who live in a fantasy world for reality to so steadfastly reject their brayings.

Domestically, Obama will have a number of factors on his side, beyond good working majorities in both houses. There is at least agreement that there is a problem - anthropogenic climate change is a fact, an American fact. Doing nothing is simply too expensive. A good part of the Republican party accepts this, as do major corporations, and even oil companies. The deniers are, or should be, folding their tents - and what was to deny? A molecule of CO2 absorbs the longer wave length of light, trapping radiant heat from the earth. More CO2, more trapped warmth. If temperatures drift much beyond 2C above pre-industrial levels, the human and economic consequences could be catastrophic. Americans have already seen what happens when a warmer Atlantic Ocean lends its energy to the hurricane season.

Sigh. The usual litany of the dogma of the Grand Lie (it no longer qualifies as a Big Lie, but has become the Grand Lie of this generation of fools and simpletons): but the clarity of who is to blame is unusual. Here anthropogenic climate change - the tail wagging the dog - is an American "fact", something that the Americans have caused and hence own responsibility for. We see that the dream continues...

Other than that, it's the drivel that passes for science in their dream world.

Thus the matter is passing from virtue, from idealism and sombre invitations to self-denial, which government, markets and the electorate distrust, to self-interest and necessity, for which they all have respect. Oil production will soon decline, and alternatives must be found anyway; many oil-producing countries are grisly human constructs on which no one wants to depend; if the US does not invest in green technologies now, it will have to buy them later from its competitors; Germany has created a quarter of a million jobs in renewable energy; it is beginning to be apparent that there is a vast amount of money to be made retooling and supplying a whole civilisation with new energy sources.

Ah, now we see the chain: after failing to convince the powers-that-be of the dire straits of today, the emphasis shifts to the long-term persuasion of the public of the necessity of this change. The transition is from virtue, idealism and self-denial to self-interest and necessity. The problem is that too reach the point where self-interest takes over, reality must be denied and replaced with a dream world where everything is simplicity and the world is simply too dense to solve the problems. This isn't a dream world: it is delusional, one that once again denies the fundamental engineering problems that face solar, wind and other "renewable" energy sources.

The technologies are developing at speed, but the basic ideas have a simple allure. Consider just one form of solar energy. An alien landing on our planet and noticing how it was bathed in light would be amazed to learn that we believe ourselves to have an energy problem, that we ever should have thought of overheating or poisoning ourselves by burning fossil fuels or generating plutonium. Sunlight falls on us in a constant stream, a sweet rain of photons beyond counting. On average, by Nasa's calculation, 200 watts for every square metre of the Earth's surface. A single photon striking a semi-conductor releases an electron, and so electricity is born, right out of sunbeams. These are the photovoltaics that Einstein described and for which he won a Nobel prize. If you believed in God, you might say this free energy was his greatest gift. Let there be light! If you did not, you might wonder at how auspicious the laws of physics are. As is often pointed out, less than an hour's worth of all the sunlight falling on the Earth would satisfy the whole world's needs for a year. A fraction of our hot deserts could power our civilisation.

Well, sunshine, if that's the case, why hasn't it already been done? Could it be that ... reality intrudes just a tiny bit, that the 200 watts for every square metre is a hypothetical, and that the semi-conductor - more precisely, silicon, or is he advocating gallium-arsenic semiconductors here? - can't generate an electron for every photon (that'd be perfect efficiency, and simply doesn't exist in the real world, that nasty, cold and brutish place. Recognize again how "simple" everything is...

Millions of acres in the American south-western deserts have already been identified for suitable sites. Installations are beginning to appear, some of them funded by European companies taking advantage of state tax-breaks. In private and public labs, new technologies are being invented. How can a solar or wind plant generate power by night? Daniel Nocera at MIT has imitated photosynthesis to crack water efficiently into hydrogen and oxygen; at night these gases are recombined in a fuel cell to drive a turbine. In other labs, the race is on for that industrial golden egg, a cheaper, lighter, more powerful battery for use in electric cars; nanotechnology is being used to derive two electrons from one photon; thin film solar panels are already in production; other labs are working on solar paints. The lines of inquiry are proliferating by the thousands. That resourceful Californian generation that made its fortune refining the internet is beginning to relive its youth in clean energy. The whole sector is like a coiled spring, waiting to unleash its full force into the economy.

Here the use of scare tactics: see, us Europeans know better, and we're using your stupid tax breaks, designed to make Americans a tad paranoid (Really? he wants paranoid Americans?). His solutions beggar thought: breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen is fine, but where is the water in the desert? Recombine these in the night in a fuel cell to drive a turbine: WTF? What drivel is this? You can't use a fuel cell to drive a turbine: fuel cells generate electricity directly (you could drive a turbine by burning hydrogen, but fuel cells are so much more ... ecological, I guess is the right word. At least he's getting the key words down right, even if they are being put together like a child playing with an erector set. The whole sector waiting like a coiled spring, ready to unleash its full force into the economy?

Obviously, the man knows absolutely NOTHING about either watch movements or the economy. The coiled spring refers to the mainspring of a watch: as anyone watchmaker knows - and as well those who actually inform themselves about how watches work - unleashing the full power of a mainspring on a watch movement destroys the movement, since the critical thing is not unleashing full force, but rather managing the release. The same is true of the economy (and the concept of "watchwork economy" is something I will be developing further...)

In other words, Obama assumes power at a time when renewable energy has ceased to be a marginal pursuit. The hour may have summoned the man, but this happens to be a particularly difficult hour. In Berkeleyan mode, we have entered a global recession because we always thought we would. The fictional head of a snake has begun to devour its actually existing tail - a circularity the great Argentinean fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges, would have appreciated. We dreamed of this recession, we saw it coming and we made it so. Meanwhile, in the Johnsonian "real" economy, factories, distribution systems, human inventiveness, the will to work, the need for goods and services are much as they were last year - except, as certainty of the recession tightens, people fear more and spend less, corporations begin to make redundancies, and so the recession is locked in.

Au contraire: first of all, Obama does not assume power. No American President has ever "assumed power", but rather assumed the title of President of the United States, whose powers are clearly delineated and limited by the US constitution. That's an interesting document to read: I recommend doing so on a regular basis, especially for the author.

But what goaded me to write here is this line: We dreamed of this recession, we saw it coming and we made it so.

Good lord, what hubris. But more appropriately, what a crime: to deeply desire economic turmoil, to actively work to make it so. And most importantly: it was their goal. Does the ban on drilling now make sense? Do punitive taxes on oil products now make sense? Does the idea of making everyone pay for carbon now make sense? The left and the greens - the watermelons, Red inside, Green outside - have been working on creating the crisis. Of creating, to use the jargon, a pre-revolutionary situation where the old order becomes incapable of dealing with the problem. It's just rare that anyone actually admits to it.

Beyond that, the problems are solvable, but they are formidable too. The departing president has been energetically pulling levers in the real world, facilitating coal-fired power plants, opening up federally owned wilderness to oil and gas drilling and encouraging the commercial exploitation of oil shale. This will all have to be reversed by President Obama. Solar- and wind-generating plants are often far from cities; as in Europe, a new direct current grid is needed; the old is chaotically devolved to state level. The costs will be enormous, the benefits will not be immediately obvious to many consumers, and the US government has colossal debts. Coal remains a crucial energy source in the States, but "clean" coal is still a fantasy, and piping CO2 to the appropriate geological sites and pumping it underground is expensive. Oil interests will not be happy with their loss of supremacy and ancient privileges, or with contemplating a cap and trade scheme during a recession. Acceptable electric vehicles are still a good way off.

Now, this is the interesting twist on the old phrase: difficult but solveable: here it is solveable, but difficult. Might sound like a small difference, but the difference is critical: in the real-world of engineering, one works on the difficult in order to solve it; here the problems are declared, ex cathedra from first principles, as solved, now make it so. Sorry, engineering doesn't work that way (as the vast and doomed attempts by Soviet and ChiCom engineers to implement the sad plans of their masters have proved time and time again).

The next sentence reflects the fact that the author remains in the dream world: Bush is doing things in the real world. Which then "must" be reversed by a President Obama. Then he goes on to underscore how much he is living in a fantasy world with no relationship to reality: to change the entire grid from alternating to direct current - which also involves changing the entire world of consumer appliances and electronics - is sheer stupidity that generates huge costs with no direct benefits. This is not something the government can afford, and what the author argues for is the realization of pipe dreams: nothing more, nothing less than the demand that reality be changed to match the dream world.

And beyond the administrative and technological problems, there are the usual obstacles. It is not only Harold Macmillan's "events, dear boy, events" that can blow a thoughtful politician off course. There are half a dozen other pressing domestic and international concerns, then - mistakes, enemies, political process, the fumblings or ambitious scheming of lieutenants, the fading novelty of a new presidential face. And above all, undue caution.

Sigh. Reality as obstacle to the dream world.

Within the climate science community there is a faction darkly murmuring that it is already too late. The more widely held view is hardly more reassuring: we have less than eight years to start making a significant impact on CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, eight years to move from Berkeley's solipsism to Johnson's pragmatism. Thereafter, as tipping points are reached, as feedback loops strengthen, the emissions curve will rise too quickly for us to restrain it. In the words of John Schellnhuber, one of Europe's leading climate scientists and chief scientific adviser to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, "what is required is an industrial revolution for sustainability, starting now".

If there are indeed "only" 8 years for the change to happen, then there is no point in trying: that sort of change takes a generation, not a mere two political seasons. Once again, reality intrudes...

To be effective, this is only possible at the level of international cooperation - far more difficult to achieve than any technological breakthrough. There is a rendezvous next year in Copenhagen in late November which the entire world of climate expertise is preparing itself for and which is considered by many in the field to be our best and possibly last hope of addressing the problem before it runs away from us. It is the global successor to Kyoto, known in the trade as COP (Conference of Parties) 15. There is a case to be made that it will be one of the most important international meetings ever convened. If it does not result in practical, radical measures, the fight to control our future could well be lost. Every nation on the planet will be represented. The general feeling is that the conference cannot be allowed to fail. And it cannot succeed without the leadership of the United States. There are fears that Obama will move too cautiously on climate change for political reasons, and that would be a tragic error. Schellnhuber says, "If he were prepared to come in person to Copenhagen and make a speech, a bold commitment, similar to what Reagan did in Reykjavik, he would become a hero of the planet, for good."

Now the author admits above that the European posturing about Kyoto has been hypocritical and a waste of time: why then does he think that COP would run any different? If anything, it's a COP-Out. The most important international meeting ever convened? More important than Yalta, more important than the establishment of the United Nations, more important that your average Boy Scout meeting? Scarcely: the author is proclaiming the apocalypse if the world does not dance to his tune: the problem is, he needs a subservient Barack Obama to does his will.

But hey, send Obama to the conference, let him wine and dine with these fools, let him participate in the dream. Reality will intrude. The idea that Obama can do for the ecological movement what Reagan did for the West is not merely pathetic, it is truly deluded. You see, Obama won't be able to do anything that endangers one of the core special interests that have bought the Democratic Party (and bought it a long, long time ago, my friends): the unions. Obama is facing a Congress that thinks it has it all: his real position is that of the new farmhand who is between the prize razorback and the feedtrough. Expect attendance, blah blah and at least the same degree of hypocrisy about implementing whatever COP comes out with that the Europeans express: expect nothing besides a bit of kum-by-yah and the usual nattering nabobs. The best and last hope indeed: if anything, such conferences are the best and last hope that this dream is finally sent off to be hung up and dried.

And so the mechanisms of the unreal, the smoke and mirrors, might have to come to the aid of our actually existing, overheating world. The process that let us believe we were dealing with climate change when we were doing nothing at all, or let us think our way into a recession - these emanations of collective and collusive dreaming can have their positive side. Obama may succeed in tipping the nations toward a low-carbon future simply because people think he can. Scientists, whose stock-in-trade is scepticism, and conference-weary diplomats, along with millions around the world are attributing to him something like unearthly powers. He is invested with more symbolism - of renewal, of rationality - than his slight frame can bear. But having persuaded everybody else, he may be doubly persuaded himself. This aura will be his empowerment, as numinous as good luck, as permanent as spring snow. He has to move decisively.

This is where the author is right: the only way that the watermelons are going to get any sort of their dream passed is to employ smoke and mirrors to bamboozle the sheeple. The fact that the watermelons continue to prey upon the uninformed and generate revenues from them is the only thing keeping them alive: their hope now is not for their "science" to prevail, but more importantly for the neo-savior to arrive and transform the world, to make dreams a reality. Oh, and those who drink the anthropogenic global warming kool-aid aren't the sceptics here: they are the accolates, incapable of scepticism, because it comes at the cost of the loss of their funding. Obama's the man, if he can't do it, no one can!

Sorry, this is peurile, pathetic and desperate.

There were those who said during the campaign that Obama turned a fine speech, empty of intent, that he was, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle. He must confound his detractors and start the detailed, practical preparation for Copenhagen, and refute them thus!

And if you kick you heels together and say "there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home", then we all don't need to fly home for thanksgiving and hence can save the environment!

Sorry, words just fail me (hah!). The idea that the ultimate all-hat-and-no-cattle politician of the last 100 years will turn into the magician and save us all from our sins is childish at best.

Luck has it that this is the best that the watermelons have to offer to get their way: deus ex machina via Obama. To be honest, it's more than a tad insulting and it underscores really how pitiful the watermelons really are. Their time is running out. Obama has plenty of other problems to solve: pretending that he will be the savior in some exalted way is truly delusional.

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