Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Global Warming: Truth or Dare?

This article was reviewed on YaYaCanada before it was published.
It was also reviewed in the April 2007 issue of The Dominion magazine (Alternate LINK).
It inspired David Noble to write The Corporate Climate Coup.

Alexander Cockburn writing in The Nation called it "one of the best essays on greenhouse myth-making from a left perspective" ("Dissidents Against Dogma", The Nation, 25 June 2007). 
See several related articles at ACTIVIST CLIMATE GUY.

Most downloaded radiation physics of planetary warming free-access article (June 2011): HERE.]

[2015 essay: Climate Stupidity and Human Survival: HERE.] 

Global Warming: Truth or Dare?
Denis G. Rancourt
February 2007.

Global warming is often presented as the greatest potential threat to humankind and as the greatest environmental and ecological threat on the planet. It is also presented as a problem that could be solved or contained by determined international collaboration - by political will if it were present.

I argue: (1) that global warming (climate change, climate chaos, etc.) will not become humankind’s greatest threat until the sun has its next hiccup in a billion years or more (in the very unlikely scenario that we are still around), (2) that global warming is presently nowhere near being the planet’s most deadly environmental scourge, and (3) that government action and political will cannot measurably or significantly ameliorate global climate in the present world.

I also advance that there are strong societal, institutional, and psychological motivations for having constructed and for continuing to maintain the myth of a global warming dominant threat (global warming myth, for short). I describe these motivations in terms of the workings of the scientific profession and of the global corporate and finance network and its government shadows.

I argue that by far the most destructive force on the planet is power-driven financiers and profit-driven corporations and their cartels backed by military might; and that the global warming myth is a red herring that contributes to hiding this truth. In my opinion, activists who, using any justification, feed the global warming myth have effectively been co-opted, or at best neutralized.

Since the global warming myth is presently the dominant environmental paradigm in the First World middleclass mainstream, let us put it into the relevant perspective of planetary warming mechanisms.

One should first recognise that the atmospheric greenhouse effect is a well known natural phenomenon, mostly caused by atmospheric water vapour, that keeps our planet warm and habitable whereas (anthropogenic = human-made) global warming refers to a small extra greenhouse warming (0.5-1 C/33 C; 1-5 %) allegedly arising from an increase in atmospheric concentration of the minority greenhouse effect gas CO2 (carbon dioxide) – the later increase in turn possibly arising from fossil fuel burning (see below).

This means that the global greenhouse effect gives earthlings a needed and much appreciated base warming of 33 C (degrees Celsius), whereas the alleged “global warming” would contribute an extra 0.5 to 1 C of warming (a 1 to 5 % increase), on a planet that has seen a dozen or so ice ages since human kind has appeared.

The most often cited reconstructed global average temperature curves (themselves somewhat tenuous, see below) show increases in global mean temperature of approximately 0.5-1 C in the last 100 years. Let us compare this to the extremes of temperature to which humans routinely adapt. Humans have thrived in every possible ecological niche on the planet, from deserts to tropical forests to the North Polar Regions, since well before present technological advances. These environments show mean temperature differences of as much as 50 C or more. Many of these environments also show day to night and seasonal differences of as much as 20-50 C. A sudden 0.5-1 C increase in mean annual temperature (not spread over 100 years) would be imperceptible to any human and indeed could barely be detected using all of the methods of the modern scientific enterprise.

In addition, whereas there is evidence of negative consequences to populations from sustained regional cooling (e.g., Europe’s Little Ice Age, 1300-1850 AD) and whereas global ice ages (occurring every 40-100 thousand years or so) clearly have significantly affected human populations, there is no known case of a sustained warming alone having negatively impacted an entire population. If it where not for the global greenhouse effect, the planet would on average be 33 C colder and inhabitable. As a general rule, all life on Earth does better when it’s hotter: Compare ecological diversity and biotic density (or biomass) at the poles and at the equator.

Humans have already adapted to dramatically different regional climates occurring in every corner of the planet and the alleged future global changes are very small compared to these existing variations. There are more displaced refugees from wars and from economic aggression than there will ever be displaced inhabitants from rapid climate-induced habitat transformations. In both cases, the solution is to accommodate those loosing their homes and communities, not to attempt to control planetary processes and unpredictable events.

Before ‘climate chaos’ became cliché, many scientists advanced evidence for detected amounts of global average Earth surface temperature increases occurring in the post-industrial age. These reports, taken as a whole, were the main original catalysts towards constructing the global warming myth, so it is useful to critically examine their validity.

It was no easy task to arrive at the most cited original estimated rate of increase of the mean global surface temperature of 0.5 C in 100 years. As with any evaluation of a global spatio-temporal average, it involved elaborate and unreliable grid size dependent averages. In addition, it involved removal of outlying data, complex corrections for historical differences in measurement methods, measurement distributions, and measurement frequencies, and complex normalisations of different data sets – for example, land based and sea based measurements and the use of different temperature proxies that are in turn dependent on approximate calibration models. Even for modern thermometer readings in a given year, the very real problem of defining a robust and useful global spatio-temporal average Earth-surface temperature is not solved, and is itself an active area of research.

This means that determining an average of a quantity (Earth surface temperature) that is everywhere different and continuously changing with time at every point, using measurements at discrete times and places (weather stations), is virtually impossible; in that the resulting number is highly sensitive to the chosen extrapolation method(s) needed to calculate (or rather approximate) the average.

Averaging problems aside, many tenuous approximations must be made in order to arrive at any of the reported final global average temperature curves. For example, air temperature thermometers on ocean-going ships have been positioned at increasing heights as the sizes of ships have increased in recent history. Since temperature decreases with increasing altitude, this altitude effect must be corrected. The estimates are uncertain and can change the calculated global warming by as much as 0.5 C, thereby removing the originally reported effect entirely.

Similarly, surface ocean temperatures were first measured by drawing water up to the ship decks in cloth buckets and later in wooden buckets. Such buckets allow heat exchange in different amounts, thereby changing the measured temperature. This must be corrected by various estimates of sizes and types of buckets. These estimates are uncertain and can again change the resulting final calculated global warming value by an amount comparable to the 0.5 C value. There are a dozen or so similar corrections that must be applied, each one able to significantly alter the outcome.

In wanting to go further back in time, the technical problems are magnified. For example, when one uses a temperature proxy, such as the most popular tree ring proxy, instead of a physical thermometer, one has the significant problem of calibrating the proxy. With tree rings from a given preferred species of tree, there are all kinds of unavoidable artefacts related to wood density, wood water content, wood petrifaction processes, season duration effects, forest fire effects, extra-temperature biotic stress effects (such as recurring insect infestations), etc. Each proxy has its own calibration and preservation problems that are not fully understood.

The reported temperature curves should therefore be seen as tentative suggestions that the authors hope will catalyze more study and debate, not reliable results that one should use in guiding management practice or in deducing actual planetary trends. In addition, the original temperature or proxy data is usually not available to other research scientists who could critically examine the data treatment methods; nor are the data treatment methods spelled out in enough detail. Instead, the same massaged data is reproduced from report to report rather than re-examined.

The most recent thermometer measurements have their own special problems, not the least of which is urban warming, due to urban sprawl, which locally affects weather station mean temperatures and wind patterns: Temperatures locally change because local surroundings change. Most weather monitoring stations are located, for example, near airports which, in turn, are near expanding cities.

As a general rule in science, if an effect is barely detectable, requires dubious data treatment methods, and is sensitive to those data treatment methods and to other approximations, then it is not worth arguing over or interpreting and should not be used in further deductions or extrapolations. The same is true in attempting to establish causal relationships. This is in contrast to the precautionary principle which, in this context, would dictate that humans should reduce their fossil fuel burning because a resulting increase in atmospheric CO2 **might** cause serious environmental harm. I argue that we should stick to known consequences rather than potential ones – displacing people displaces people, clearing forests clears forests, etc. – and that we can apply universally accepted norms of human justice and respect for nature in limiting exploiters’ impulses.

Global warming myth advocates emphasize that the alleged extra-CO2-driven warming does not occur uniformly, in that some regions are warmed more than others while other regions are cooled below their pre-warming averages. They claim that many regions therefore already suffer significant departures from their pre-warming average temperatures, by as much as 5 C, even though the overall global average increase is difficult to detect.

Whereas regional changes in average temperature (e.g., warmer poles and cooler tropics) are not in themselves bad, global warming myth advocates argue that such changes have significant negative ecological consequences. They argue that when regional climate changes occur, rather than simply causing geographical redistributions of ecosystems and niche creation, they instead cause permanent damages in the form of habitat loss and species loss.

Global warming myth advocates also argue that global warming drives increased climate chaos. That is, overall increases in extreme weather events, such as more frequent and more intense tropical hurricanes, more frequent and more intense heat waves, more frequent and more intense droughts and floods, etc.

The available data does not support these claims and does not allow one to conclude that we have entered into a period of greater climate chaos, let alone that any perceived increase in climate chaos would be caused by extra-CO2-driven planetary warming. Similarly, it is impossible to reliably establish (see below) that inferred regional warmings in the Polar Regions are caused by an extra-CO2-driven global greenhouse effect increase.

Weather is by its nature chaotic and unpredictable. Every year weather events occur and will always occur that have never occurred before in recorded history. A given July heat spell in North Bay, Ontario, will last longer than any other such heat spell that has also had more than three consecutive day-time highs of more than 35 C, for example. For the first time in recorded history, three selectively chosen Canadian northern towns of more than 50,000 inhabitants will not have snow at Christmas. One hundred year old trees will be uprooted by a hurricane in some locality in Northern Quebec in September, etc.

Regional weather (including regional air current patterns) is well known by climatologists to have measurable variations over a broad range of magnitudes and on every time scale, from decadal, to centennial, to millennial and beyond, as documented in climate and weather event records such as historical documents, tree rings, lake sediments, soil profiles, geological weathering patterns, etc. Climatologists have, for over one hundred years, studied these variations occurring on all continents and have always attempted to relate them to potential causal factors, with little success. Modern satellite observations and recent global circulation models have provided few significant advances, despite the hype.

Media sensationalism notwithstanding, none of the recent reports of weather events step outside of the statistical samples gathered by climatologists, as they have often informed us. Among other things, climatologists, environmental scientists, and statisticians have pointed out that: (1) North America has less frequent but more intense forest fires because foresters manage forests, (2) insurance companies pay out more natural catastrophe claims because there are more people living in more precarious areas with more expensive installations, (3) more people suffer the consequences of flooding because more people live in flood plains, (4) more urban elderly die in heat waves because they are older and live in isolation and in high rises, (5) water tables fall because of deforestation and watershed management practices, and so on.

Although weather is business as usual, there are significant changes occurring on the planet and some of these appear at first sight to be regional climate related.

For example, many high altitude glaciers are receding. Some glaciers are growing but it appears that more studied glaciers are receding than growing. The next question is why? There are no reports of average air temperature increases in the vicinities of these glaciers. To melt or sublimate ice one must supply a large amount of energy, far beyond what could be supplied by thermal conduction driven by an undetected temperature increase.

The required energy clearly comes from the sun, just as spring sunlight melts snow in temperate climates much more than the increase in air temperature ever could. More radiant energy must be deposited on the receding glaciers. Either there is more incident radiant energy or the glaciers are more able to absorb rather than reflect the incident radiation or both.

The causes of increased incident radiation can be one or a combination of the following: (1) there is more solar radiation because the sun itself is putting out more energy, the solar “constant” has increased, (2) more solar radiation directly comes through the atmosphere because the atmosphere is more transparent rather than reflective (e.g., less cloudy, less ozone), (3) more infra-red is sent back to the glaciers rather than escaping to outer space because the atmosphere is more greenhouse active (e.g., higher water vapour content), and (4) more ambient infra-red radiation is sent towards the glaciers via atmospheric greenhouse scattering because there is more ambient infra-red radiation originating from neighbouring ice-free cover that has become more incident-solar-radiation absorbent. The latter ice-free surfaces could have become more absorbent by changes in their surface properties (i.e., surface coverings). For example, deforested soil is more incident radiation absorbent than a forest cover, bare rock is much more absorbent than snow-covered rock, etc.

The glaciers themselves could have become more absorbent for incident radiation by various mechanisms. For example, mineral or organic or pollution atmospheric dust loads (e.g., fossil fuel burning soot) could have increased leading to dust delivery to the glaciers. Such microscopic deposited dust in turn makes a glacier surface more radiation absorbent. The type of snow that can cover a glacier will also affect its radiation (light) absorption and reflection properties and snow type (granularity, dendrite structure, etc.) is in turn dependent on several atmospheric properties. Volcanic activity, large scale forest or grassland fires, dominant wind patterns, large scale changes in soil humidity and other conditions arising from changes in agricultural practices, can all significantly alter atmospheric dust loads and the latter are known to affect regional scale solar radiation budgets.

We see therefore that receding glaciers are not even most directly a sign of global warming and that the actual mechanism(s) can include a host of other causes. Indeed, paleoclimatologists studying global climate and ice age cycles believe the opposite causal direction: Radiative loading and water cycle factors change snow and ice cover which in turn change global radiation balance (planetary surface albedo) which then provides a positive feedback for further warming (resulting from increased radiative loading) or cooling (resulting from decreased radiative loading). Indeed, the accepted theory of ice age cycles is based on solar radiation forcing arising from cyclical Sun-Earth orbital variations.

As another example, let us accept, for the sake of argument; that Polar Region warming is occurring beyond statistical variations of the last 100 years, say; that permafrost (permanently frozen subsoil) is less extensive; and that polar ocean ice coverages are less prominent. The next question is why? Ocean currents have not dramatically changed, nor have measured sea level air temperatures.

These changes can again be due to solar radiative effects, along the same lines as explained above for receding glaciers. For ocean glaciers the above discussion of mechanisms for receding high altitude glaciers applies exactly whereas minor modifications are needed for receding permafrost.

In the case of permafrost, the seasonal duration of direct solar radiation loading to the soil is probably the dominant factor. This duration is inversely related to the duration of soil snow and ice cover which in turn can be controlled by the same factors discussed above that control high altitude glacier recession.

In conclusion, all the main easily observable and most cited regional warming effects are probably driven by radiative mechanisms having nothing to do with (i.e., not being caused by) global warming or increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration. More likely causal factors include: soot from coal-powered plants, mineral, soil, and organic matter dust from changes in agricultural practices, fires from changes in water and land management practices, increased high-altitude and polar atmospheric transparency, changes in the solar constant, etc.

This is not to say that these local and regional warming phenomena are not important and do not affect ecosystems and people’s lives. But then if we want to help these people (mostly Polar Region and high altitude aboriginal people) then we need only help them! For example, we could ask what help they most need rather than continuing to pollute their environment and destroy their lands by resource exploitation. If we want to stop destroying habitat, we could stop destroying habitat.

Environmental scientists and government agencies get funding to study and monitor problems that do not threaten corporate and financial interests. It is therefore no surprise that they would attack continental-scale devastation from resource extraction via the CO2 back door. The main drawback with this strategy is that you cannot control a hungry monster by asking it not to shit as much.

Somewhere First World middleclassers will need to abandon the lies that we live in democracies, that the corporate profit motive guarantees environmental protection, that servicing manufactured debt advances society, that corporate agri-business is the best way to feed people, that making a mess everywhere to serve share holders is the best way to generate well being, and that exploiting others is a good way to help them, not to mention that war is an acceptable method to bring justice and freedom to enslaved populations.

The planet will continue to change, adapt and evolve, with or without us. Recurring episodes of increased volcanic activity will continue to alter our climate. Ice ages will continue to come and go. Meteorites will continue to impact our planetary home. Disease and insect outbursts, wild fires, floods, and earthquakes will continue to wash over us as we adapt and respond. The sun will continue to vary its output and will eventually burn out. The atmosphere will continue to change as it always has under the influence of life and of geology. We can’t control these things. We can barely perceive them correctly. But we can take control of how we treat each other.

The best we can do for the environment and for the planet is to learn not to let undemocratic power structures run our lives. The best we can do is to reject exploitation and domination and to embrace cooperation and solidarity. The best we can do is to not trust subservient scientists and to become active agents for change beyond head-in-the-sand personal lifestyle choices.

We need to get political, beyond corporate-controlled shadow governments and co-opted political parties. We need to take charge more than we need to recycle. Concentrated power and capital are not about to give up their practices or their imperative for profit. Resistance to the insane return-on-investments hydra that inhabits our planet is our main responsibility if we are concerned about future generations.

There are real environmental problems on the planet. Agriculture, especially large-scale corporate chemical fertilizer and pesticide-based agriculture, is the main human force that has transformed the planet. Resource extraction and use is a close second, including energy, minerals, building materials, etc. Toxic substance pollution vies for an important place, with everything from persistent organic pollutants, to heavy metals, to radioactive substances, to pharmaceutical metabolites, all the way to industrially prepared food products. The industrial food-animal cycle is another wonderful experiment in attempted mass suicide, not to mention its grotesque inanimality.

All in all, the best way to not pollute and destroy the environment is to not pollute and destroy the environment. The best way to not exploit others is to not exploit others. I am not talking only about personal lifestyle choices, alternative information sources, and volunteer work. I am talking about taking back control from undemocratically run corporations and illegitimate concentrations of power, by all the effective means we can muster and as though our survival depended on it. I am talking about activism.

Global warming is strictly an imaginary problem of the First World middleclass. Nobody else cares about global warming. Exploited factory workers in the Third World don’t care about global warming. Depleted uranium genetically mutilated children in Iraq don’t care about global warming. Devastated aboriginal populations the world over also can’t relate to global warming, except maybe as representing the only solidarity that we might volunteer.

If we want to help island dwellers threatened by a predicted sea level rise then let’s help those island dwellers. If we are worried about victims of weather events then let us help those victims. The poorest Hurricane Katrina victims are still waiting.

It’s not about limited resources. [“The amount of money spent on pet food in the US and Europe each year equals the additional amount needed to provide basic food and health care for all the people in poor countries, with a sizeable amount left over.” (UN Human Development Report, 1999)] It’s about exploitation, oppression, racism, power, and greed. Economic, human, and animal justice brings economic sustainability which in turn is always based on renewable practices. Recognizing the basic rights of native people automatically moderates resource extraction and preserves natural habitats. Not permitting imperialist wars and interventions automatically quenches nation-scale exploitation. True democratic control over monetary policy goes a long way in removing debt-based extortion. Etc.

Regarding planetary greenhouse warming, by far the most important greenhouse active atmospheric gas is water vapour – it is a major constituent of the atmosphere whereas CO2 is a trace atmospheric gas. This is well known and it is established, for example, that even doubling the present atmospheric CO2 concentration, to the unattainable value of 800 ppm (parts per million) say, without changing anything else in the atmosphere, would have little discernable effect on global temperature or climate.

All of the climate models that relate CO2 concentrations to climate effects do so by arbitrarily linking a model increase in CO2 to an induced and larger increase in atmospheric water vapour. In other words, all the climate models postulate a large and positive feedback between CO2 and water vapour.

Several scientists have argued that these models are computer realizations of the tail wagging the dog. Water vapour is the dominant greenhouse factor and the behaviour of water in the atmosphere is far more complex than that of CO2 (clouds, rain, snow, evaporation, etc.) yet CO2 is taken to drive the water cycle rather than water taken to drive CO2 dynamics; using a fictitious multiplicative feedback factor.

On the contrary, for example: Water is often the determining factor in vegetation growth. Vegetation growth in turn consumes CO2 and is the greatest active bound-carbon (C) pool on the planet. Therefore, it is more correct to say that water drives the carbon cycle. Atmospheric CO2 concentration is only a remote witness to all the natural and anthropogenic processes that consume and produce CO2.

There is no known mechanism whereby an increase in CO2 concentration could directly cause an increase in water vapour concentration in the amount required by climate computer models. On the other hand, there are many known mechanisms whereby water vapour concentration can be dramatically affected by various external agents. Some examples are as follows: (1) solar input drives convection and winds which in turn largely determine atmospheric evaporation loading, (2) deforestation and agriculture expose soils which are sources of mineral and organic dust which in turn can induce precipitation or can affect solar radiation balances, (3) solar winds of cosmic rays can induce high altitude cloud formation thereby reducing solar radiation penetration, etc.

Ice core data shows strong temporal correlations between average global temperature (as recorded by the water oxygen isotope proxy) and atmospheric CO2 (as recorded in trapped gas bubbles) yet these correlations do not show causal relations. CO2 increases may accompany temperature increases rather than causing them. Indeed, some high resolution studies have suggested that the temperature increases precede the CO2 increases. Interestingly, also, ice core data shows strong temporal correlations between inferred temperature and amount of dust preserved in the ice core. Finally, the older geological record shows several dramatic examples of where CO2 concentration and global average temperature were either unrelated or even anti-correlated.

Just as solar radiation intensity and inclination determines our seasons and the differences between day and night, so too solar radiation variations related to solar winds, magnetic shielding, and solar intensity cycles (e.g., sunspots) probably have a greater impact on the water cycle than changes in any greenhouse active trace gas.
There is of course much more wrong with state-of-the-art global circulation models (climate models) than the assumption and implementation of CO2-H2O feedback. Although these models are among the most elaborate predictive models of complex non-linear phenomena, they are nonetheless sweeping oversimplifications of the global climate system and its mechanistic intricacies.

Disregarding the above objections, if we take CO2 to be the pivotal quantity, then even this CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is not easy for scientists to understand. While the value of the CO2 concentration can be measured reliably and accurately and while it is increasing, possibly in response to fossil fuel burning, the measured increase is not proportional to the known increase in fossil fuel consumption. There is not a simple relation between fossil fuel burning and atmospheric CO2 in two key respects: (1) the temporal variations of burning and of atmospheric CO2 concentration do not follow each other – the curves do not match, they do not have the same shape, and (2) the net extra (post-industrial) amount of CO2 in the atmosphere cannot be reconciled with the amount of CO2 produced by fossil fuel burning.

Regarding the latter point, the resulting amount of CO2 in the atmosphere depends on many processes that either produce CO2 (that are sources) or consume CO2 (that are sinks). Growth of plants is a sink. Degradation of soil or sediment organic matter is a source. Burying and preserving sedimentary or soil organic matter from oxidation is a sink. Breathing is a form of combustion and is a source. Photosynthesis is a sink. Fossil fuels are preserved organic matter not yet degraded by oxidation (or combustion). Deforestation is a net source since forests are larger repositories of bound carbon than are agricultural or grazing lands. The weathering of rocks and the erosion of mountains is a source, as is mining. Etc. As it turns out, when all the known sources and sinks are added up, scientists are not able to account for half of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel burning.

In other words, there is a “missing sink” that is taking up approximately half of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel burning; that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. This is a massive amount that scientists simply cannot account for. Clearly, the complex source and sink mechanisms of the bio and geospheres are far from completely understood, as are the myriad of feedback mechanisms that can dramatically either slow or intensify the rates of sinking and sourcing.

The point here is that CO2 concentration itself, even if we stubbornly cling to it as a holly grail of climate mediation, most probably cannot be controlled by controlling anthropogenic CO2 emissions. There are more unknown and unforeseeable CO2 evolution feedback mechanisms then there are climate research institutes on the planet.

Even among human activities, there are many practices that can potentially affect atmospheric CO2 fluxes more than direct mitigation of fossil fuel burning. These include: distribution-of-wealth practices; world investment, trading and lending practices; democratic versus corporate control over the media, over marketing and over the mental environment in general; military intervention and intimidation practices; and so on. Each of the above areas of societal behaviour and organization can be shown to significantly alter or moderate global CO2 fluxes between the atmosphere and other compartments.

Excluding direct human activities (land and water use, etc.), there are major natural factors that affect CO2 atmospheric loading. These are only partially understood and include: geological weathering, ocean sedimentation, land plant growth, soil evolution, sediment diagenesis, ecological niche invasion, volcanic activity, continental subduction, and many others. Indeed, there is no accepted model that quantitatively explains atmospheric CO2 concentration, given our limited knowledge of these factors.

The atmosphere is one of the smallest pools or compartments for carbon (as CO2) and it responds quickly to any flux changes with the other compartments. These flux routes are varied and largely unknown, as are the mechanisms that control flux magnitudes. To believe that we could control atmospheric CO2 concentration by controlling only the flux from anthropogenic fossil fuel burning is naive. Burning mitigation or carbon sequestration practices could easily have no effect or opposite effects, even if significant societal efforts were dedicated to such efforts.

What is more naïve than believing that humankind could control atmospheric CO2 levels by direct interventions, however, is the belief that the financial and corporate interests that benefit from fossil fuel burning and still have gargantuan profits to be made from the remaining fossil fuels of increasing value could in this world be convinced by law or agreement to voluntarily reduce production and to not exercise their clout in creating demand for the resource that they control.

Fossil fuel is the main economic commodity on the planet. Cheap fossil fuel equals cheap transportation equals globalized trade and globalized exploitation of labour and of natural resources. Cheap fossil fuel drives the automobile industry, the largest manufactured goods growth area in the developing world. Cheap fossil fuel is the raw material of the petro-chemical industry, including fertilizers, and drives agri-business. Cheap fossil fuel allows rapid military deployments. The entire planetary web of corporate and finance exploitation is presently reliant on fossil fuels. To think that governments of media-created stand-ins could negotiate restraints on a remote side effect (CO2) of the present day exercise of power, without ever addressing the real issues, is to be delusional. Optimism of the will in needed but let us start with pessimism of the intellect. Let us be realistic.

In this world, before renewable sources become the new basis of global economic extortion, oil exploration will be extended to every sensitive ecosystem on the globe and the world’s massive coal reserves will be liquefied and gasified. There are enough coal reserves to keep the wheels of corporate exploitation turning for another 1000 years or so at the present rate. This will happen unless citizens force democratic control over the major planetary economic instruments – private banking cartels, multinational corporations, and their government extensions that are the World Bank and the IMF. In this sense, anti-globalization activists are at the forefront of environmental activism.

Even if CO2 emissions could be controlled in actual practice, this would not impact CO2 concentration in a predictable way, and CO2 in turn does not control global climate. People, corporations, financial webs, and ecosystems all adapt to climate change. A global corporate and finance machine of profit and interest extraction based on renewable energy resources (that it would control) would not be less devastating than the present system and would continue to cause irreparable damage.

Climate is not an effectual lever for controlling the corporate and finance madness that is destroying human communities and natural habitats. Indeed, it is the kind of lever that is guaranteed to be ineffectual: It avoids the root causes, it does not challenge the relevant power structures, it entices us into collaboration, it seduces us into personal consumption responsibility as a substitute for effective political action, it turns our attention towards learning about atmospheric chemistry rather than about the relevant major human-controlled planetary forces, and it gives us something we relate to (the weather) rather than sensitizing us to real world problems. The global warming myth isolates us from the people of the Third World and from all exploited people outside of our class, rather than creating meaningful occasions for empathy and solidarity.

Precisely because it is ineffectual… and deflects our attention away from the necessary confrontations with established power.

If you accept my critique that the global warming threat is a myth then the next question is why are so many resources being spent to keep the myth alive? Why is it so important to keep global warming at the forefront of our mental environment? Why have scientists and First World environmentalists bought into it with such conviction and dedication? Why are mainstream politicians allowed by their bosses to use it in their platforms?

Scientists are simple beings. In general, they have not studied politics or sociology or human history. They have had to specialize and to confine their methods and questions to those that are specific to their chosen fields. Outside of their disciplines, they construct a world view largely from the same sources as most middleclass citizens; the mainstream media and popular culture. Their main comparison points are colleagues just like themselves that they meet at specialized conferences and in staff lounges.

At the same time, scientists, like the rest of working people, often search for a sense of doing something meaningful at work. They look for ways that their work might have broader societal implications, even though it is most often very specialized and has narrow applications. Ecologists and environmental scientists like to consider that they might help society to better treat the environment.

Science is a social construction and scientists must be seen by their peers as contributing “positively” to their fields and must mainly cooperate in order to get along and get ahead. This has the effect of creating an impetus for scientific consensus. Contrary positions are rarely deep or long lived and a lot of mileage is extracted from going along and echoing the dominant paradigms or opinions. Once something becomes popular, a scientist can repeat it without new supporting evidence comfortably and without awakening the ire of reviewers. Such statements are made in the introductions of scientific articles in order to motivate the specialized work or are made in giving broader (and more tenuous) interpretations or are made in the conclusions of papers to suggest possible implications of the specialized work.

Global warming has now become just such a popular theme among ecologists and environmental scientists. As a result, whereas specialized researchers in climate change itself continue to debate global warming and its many facets and continue to critique each others’ methods, data, and conclusions, most articles in scientific journals that mention global warming do so gratuitously – in a non-critical, superficial and self-serving way. Observers of science must therefore be careful in simply counting opinions expressed in the introductions and conclusions of scientific articles.

In addition, there are the international commissions mandated to sort out the scientific literature on topics that could have public relevance. A main relevant example is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These bodies are mostly composed of scientists but have political missions.

The board members typically study thousands of scientific papers written by climate change experts and others. These papers use different methods and report different types of data and sometimes come to contradictory conclusions. Most published papers, however, report inconclusive results and tenuous extrapolations, given the difficulty of the area of study. The authors of the original publications are usually careful and often do not overstate their conclusions. They also often qualify their interpretations and spell out the limits of their work and the most tenuous parts of their arguments.

Faced with this massive array of inconclusive or tentative or contradictory and incomplete results, the international (or national) commission must prepare a report that will be useful to governments and policy makers. They must attempt to identify the dominant or most likely trends, while keeping in mind that scientific truth cannot be established by a democratic vote or a popularity contest.

Having then identified the main trends and having extensively documented the pitfalls and limits of the reviewed papers, the international commission must also write an executive summary, for executives that want definitive statements. The executive summary is the only part of the report that has a chance of being read by the top decision makers and it is probably the only part of the report from which the media will cite. Few of the players who will read only the executive summary have the knowledge to appreciate its careful language and all the sacrifices of content and accuracy that have been made to produce it.

The international commission’s report then becomes a milestone that the commission itself, for political reasons of perceived legitimacy, cannot easily contradict in future reports. There is also a tendency for most scientists to accept the commission report’s main conclusions or proposed trends.

The environmental activists, on their side, are trying to reduce negative human impact on the natural world by whatever means they can. Many of them are astute political activists but more of them are simply environmentally responsible citizens who are mainly concerned with personal lifestyle choices to minimize personal ecological footprints. Environmentalists generally see global warming as a bonanza in public opinion outreach that has the potential to transform a majority of citizens into bicycle-riding anti-air-conditioning energy saving zealots that will also be sensitized to other and deeper issues.

Environmentalists also have an urgent sense that humankind is destroying the planet (which is true) and therefore do not have too hard a time believing that fossil fuel burning could directly cause the globe to burn up in a violent last tempest of floods and hurricanes that would destroy the last natural habitats and make civilization as we would like it virtually impossible. Besides, it makes sense, CO2 is a greenhouse effect gas and it is a product of organic matter combustion.

The main arguments I hear from environmentalists are: (1) that even if we are not attacking a root cause, forcing all to burn less fossil fuels will slow down humankind’s otherwise unimpeded destruction of the planet and (2) concentrating on this issue has much educational value and will help sensitize members of the public who may then later go a further step.

I don’t agree with either of the latter positions.

Finance-driven exploitation is creative and nimble and will always maximize short-term gain by whatever method it can get away with, whether limited (on paper) in its CO2 emissions or not, and all such exploitations of humans and of nature are always destructive beyond what should be tolerated in a democratic society.

On the “global warming issue as education” front, I again argue the opposite: That promoting the global warming myth trains people to accept unverified, remote, and abstract dangers in the place of true problems that they can discover for themselves by becoming directly engaged in their workplace and by doing their own research and observations. It trains people to think lifestyle choices (in relation to CO2 emission) rather than to think activism in the sense of exerting an influence to change societal structures. The first involves finding a comfort zone consistent with one’s values whereas the latter involves accepting confrontation and risk in order to challenge power structures. The first is needed for welfare, as are community, friendship, etc., while the second is needed to create sanity and justice in an insane world.

In that sense, the global warming myth is a powerful tool of co-optation that has even eroded one of the most fertile grounds of political activism: the environmental movement.

I find that those who defend the global warming myth most strenuously are also those who cling most to the notion that the best way to solve these problems is to somehow (“through awareness and education”) get everyone (or the majority) to minimize their footprints and consume responsibly. They usually also argue that corporate bosses and bank managers are people too and that we just need to reach out to them. They are allergic even to the notion of organized confrontation.

The beliefs of mainstream environmentalists are beliefs of the First World liberal middleclass. As such, the global warming myth fits right in.

The global warming myth, as propagated by the mainstream media, also works wonders on the general population: A global problem that we can solve by just changing our light bulbs to the energy saving kind or by voting for the Democrats or by trusting our scientists to come up with a carbon sequestration plan or by going nuclear for our electricity…

The media are allowed to talk global warming because it does not threaten power in any significant way. Indeed, it deflects attention away from real world issues. It’s perfect. The scientists can debate it. The environmental activists are largely neutralized. Everyone thinks it’s about CO2. The economists can work out the carbon credits. The politicians can talk environment without actually saying anything. Those who want to do something can change their consumer habits. The others can just ignore it and continue chatting about the weather.

The fact that the global warming myth has now attained this degree of media promotion and entertainment industry integration means not only that the issue is not threatening to power but that it has also come to be understood by power to be quite useful. In this regard, the global warming myth has joined the other useful media-supported myths that include: increasing crime rates, the terrorist threat, the American dream, that we live in a democracy, that greed and selfishness are unavoidable overriding consequences of human nature, that we all attain the economic status that fits our talents and efforts, that we help developing and Third World countries (that would be worse off without us), etc.

I hope that this essay will convert a few myth consumers into temporarily disoriented environmentalists who will eventually become dedicated and effective social justice activists. The global warming myth will then have been useful for something of value.

Denis G. Rancourt is a professor of physics and an environmental science researcher at the University of Ottawa. His scientific research has been concentrated in the areas of spectroscopic and diffraction measurement methods, magnetism, reactive environmental nanoparticles, aquatic sediments and nutrients, and boreal forest lakes.Many related articles are collected and posted at ACTIVIST CLIMATE GUY.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Activism and Risk - Life beyond altruism

At this rate, soon, on this planet, we will all have to be either activists or victims.[1]

Denis G. Rancourt
February 2007

University courses do not prompt students to consider their role in shaping the world. That is why I facilitate a course about activism at the University of Ottawa.

Registered students span the spectrum of engagement in society, from experienced campus activists to environmentally conscious community members to mainstream-misinformed clients picking up a free elective. The material presented by guest speakers is compelling enough that all students question their place in society and the nature of their agency.

There is relatively little polarization between the right and the left in the class. Representatives of both political tendencies are genuinely interested in hearing the other side and in re-considering their positions in the light of the challenges presented, or are happy to reaffirm their positions having heard the other side. Instead, the main axis of polarization tends to be between liberals and radicals. Here I consider the origin of this tension.

I argue that the heart of the tension lies in opposite fundamental beliefs about societal structures and corresponding opposite allegiances with power: The liberals are elitists who believe that the system works (because it works for them) and that one does best to preserve and enhance the system, whereas the radical activists are egalitarians who believe that societal structures need to be transformed through action and direct democracy. This brings me to elaborate on the definitions of both activism and radicalism. Militant activists are not necessarily radicals and radicals are not necessarily activists, in fact most are not. There emerges the notion that risk is a necessary component of activism, without which one can be certain that one is not changing anything. Regarding the false dichotomy of working from within versus working from without, I point out that activists from within can be effective agents for change through organizing as well as through sabotage and overt or covert mutiny.

Seeking to define activism, right and left

Many students in my class first strive to define activism. One dominant tendency is to want to be all inclusive and to suggest that activism is acting out of personal initiative to “contribute positively” to society – being personally motivated to do good. Here, volunteers who help out at the local soup kitchen and students helping others with their homework, for example, are activists, as are people who recycle and who are vegetarians, according to their beliefs of what is good.

The latter definition is not the one in common usage and is not specific enough to be useful. The latter behaviours by themselves should instead be referred to as: volunteering, altruism, responsible behaviour, community service, ethical consumerism, and so on. These behaviours are the result of natural individual impulses to cooperate and to contribute to community.

There are also natural impulses to compete and to be socially territorial. Each individual chooses to adopt either an altruistic or a defensive stance depending on her perception of the circumstances, depending on whether the human environment is perceived to be either safe or threatening, respectively. We all draw boundaries between what we do to contribute and what we do for ourselves. Few commit suicide to avoid consuming or to avoid emitting CO2 by breathing.

Activism is something else. Activism is political. In activism one acts directly to change circumstances, change power balances, or change hierarchical structures. One does this either to achieve greater justice by moving society toward equally distributed power (left-wing activism) or to advantage or protect oneself or one’s group (right-wing activism).

The left assumes a safe environment where all people can be trusted to share in power, whereas the right assumes an unsafe human environment where one must protect oneself. Both environments exist, but the left has a tendency to believe that a safe environment in which cooperation thrives does or could easily dominate whereas the right believes that there is an inescapable tendency towards aggression, oppression, and competition, and that, therefore, the best strategy is to fight others and win.

Too often the cooperation versus competition debate ignores the facts that humans respond in kind and that shared decision-making power is the greatest known catalyst for learning and personal development. This has been shown, for example, in the participatory democracy movement that has transformed Brazil.[2] The “masses” are ignorant only to the extent that they have no power.

Altruism is not activism

An animal rights activist may treat her pets humanely or may be a vegetarian but she is an activist only because she directly confronts the system that abuses animals. She may do so via intense discussions, petitions, lawsuits, lobbying, outreach events, demonstrations, challenging authority, denunciation, direct action, civil disobedience, or some such direct means. In activism one confronts in order to change the norm.

A vegetarian may practice vegetarianism in political silence and simply adapt to all eating circumstances by abstaining from eating meat, whereas another vegetarian may defend her choices and engage in every occasion to communicate her reasons and to advance her justice-based political motives. The first is a vegetarian while the latter is a vegetarian and an activist – someone whose discourse is more than a personal style.

The same is true of volunteer work, charity, and so on. These behaviours are not activism by themselves. On the contrary, they often help maintain an unjust status quo. It has been shown, for example, that the non-profit and NGO sectors taken as a whole do more harm than good.[3] Similarly, activists can be effective and dedicated agents without adopting any particular lifestyle practices that are advanced by others. An environmental activist can drive a car if she judges this to make her activism more effective overall or for whatever personal reasons. A public school activist can choose to send her children to a private school, given the family circumstances or for whatever personal reason. What matters is dedication to activism, not personal survival, convenience, and lifestyle choices.

Obedient workers contribute to maintaining existing structures whereas, for example, whistle-blowers and employee justice organizers make a difference.[4] In this world of continental-scale exploitation, it is superficially satisfying to have a job where one does seemingly useful work, but being a dedicated employee in any such job does not directly change power structures to maximize social justice. At work, you only make a difference if you work for change by going outside of what is expected and imposed.[4] This is necessarily in opposition to the established order and therefore involves personal risk.[5, 6]

Essence of activism

Two essential components, method and goal, define activism. The method involves confronting authority directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion. The goal is to redistribute power in the workplace and society. Left-wing activists want to democratize power whereas right-wing activists want to secure power. Risk is a hallmark of activism because activism seeks to redefine power structures.

At the heart of activism is a belief that things are wrong, a belief that injustices are institutionalized or socialized and are maintained by those who benefit from the established structures. The justice of left-wing activism is social justice, in which one shares rather than steals opportunity and resources; it is social justice in its broadest sense including animal justice and environmental justice.

Justice is synonymous with democracy: distributed power and horizontal structures rather than concentrated capital and lap dog elites. Anything that moves us towards more democracy and the associated greater individual responsibilities is a step in the right direction. Employees taking power from bosses, students and professors taking power from the university administration, students taking power from professors, board members taking power from the chair, community members taking power from the board of directors … by whatever effective means … all move us toward more democracy.

Democratic influence derived from activism is both empowering and educational. It may be the most powerful form of education ever practiced. How better to learn what the system is really like and your place in it? How better to increase your knowledge and your influence? All progress of civil society has been catalyzed by and based in activism. Only strong popular movements have ever wrestled concessions from the ruling class.[7, 8, 9] Service intellectuals by comparison to activists are spineless and serve only to placate and deceive in order to strengthen the power structure and erode past gains.[5]

Resolving methods and motives

With the above definition of activism, we must make the important distinction between methods and motives. Both activists and hippies want a just society. The latter actors look for it by attempting to create ideal but somewhat isolated communities. They are morally supportive of activists, may show up at rallies, and often contribute to a community that activists need, but they are not activists except when they act to transform the broader society in order to defend their ideals.

Likewise, the extreme right wing and fascists use direct action to transform power structures toward aims that are the opposite of egalitarian. They are right-wing activists. But they are at least often honest and transparent in their goals.

Liberals are elitists. They believe that the system should be moulded by an enlightened elite, is primarily just, and needs only to be adjusted by following the guidelines for change that have already been established. They believe that the best method to obtain positive change is to negotiate and cooperate with power. They are allergic to direct action. The more the direct action is likely to be effective, the more allergic they are to it. They are a major force for maintaining present power structures and they go into overdrive when activists appear to be making gains.[5]

What emerges is a two-dimensional map. On one axis, from left to right, we have the justice and equality variable, going from distributed power and complete democracy (that is, the anarchist ideal [9, 10]) to plutocracy, fascism, and hierarchy. On the vertical axis, from bottom to top, we have the methods variable, going from direct action by whatever effective means to non-confrontation and cooperation. Activists are in the bottom left, hippies in the top left, fascists in the bottom right, and liberals in the top right. True conservatives are in the middle.

Too many observers confuse method and motives: There are four poles and a middle in the action-justice plane. What liberals offer amounts to cooptation, not genuine negotiation, which can occur only between power equals.

Too many observers confuse choice of methods (collaboration versus confrontation) with choice of focus (working from within versus working from without). One can be an activist either from within or from without or both; but one can only be a true liberal from within and only be a true hippie from without.

Liberal-radical antagonism

This brings us to an analysis of the liberal-radical polarization introduced in the first paragraphs. Liberals believe that the system is fundamentally sane and needs only to be improved using methods approved by the ruling elites who are needed to protect us from the ignorant masses, whereas anarchists or socialists (radicals for short) believe that the present system and society that hosts it are deeply flawed and must be changed in their structural roots, at the level of their dominant underlying assumptions or myths, and that people are capable of great collective wisdom and growth. Given these opposed perceptions of society’s architecture and fabric, it follows that liberals would insist on cooperation and “gradual change” [5] whereas radicals would insist (at least intellectually) on challenging the structures and rules themselves.

Radicals, by definition, go to the root of phenomena. In a capitalist society, in a plutocracy, anarchists and socialists are radicals. However, radicals are not necessarily activists. Indeed, most radicals are not activists. Many academics, for example, are left intellectuals well versed in alternative power structures, but they are not engaged in activism. They do not risk their privileged positions by taking action, nor are they defiant on campus [11], which is not a niche of participatory democracy.

The liberal-radical antagonism, therefore, is not between passivity and activism or fundamentally between cooperation and actual resistance. Instead, it highlights two opposing world views that include beliefs about the associated methods that follow from these views. One can get rather overheated about protecting one’s world view (and consequently one’s view of oneself in the world) even if one is not about to risk action that would change the world toward one’s ideal. Conversely, those already engaged in activism often don’t loose much time with this debate.[12]

When liberals say “we should work from within,” they mean we should work in such a way as to preserve and ameliorate the present structure rather than question it deeply. They also incorrectly imply that working from within necessarily means working with and in support of the system rather than against it: They do not recognise the legitimacy of sabotage as a method of fighting unjust rule in society, because they do not see present rule as mostly unjust.

Liberals believe that their methods lead to the most and best results, whereas radicals believe that the methods promoted by liberals cannot possibly increase justice overall because they legitimise and strengthen a system that is overwhelmingly unjust. Liberals tend to be insiders who have had many “productive” exchanges with other insiders. Liberals are leaders and enjoy joining the elite agents for “good”… whereas radical activists tend to be outsiders who are compelled to confront and to challenge. Rather than take power, left-wing activists make power via solidarity and creative contribution.

Real mutual threat

This is how I understand the visceral confrontations that I have observed between liberals and radicals (or between different left factions), as arising from the above fundamental differences in beliefs and perceptions, coupled with a correct mutual sense that the other side represents a significant threat to both position and goals.

It’s easy for radicals and egalitarians to understand the fascist position and to find effective ways to combat the fascist drive, but the liberal threat is more insidious. Conversely, radicals are the greatest threat to the ruling liberals of present First World so-called free democracies, because liberals can cooperate with the right to the degree that serves and preserves them, but radicals present a refractory opposition.

Left-wing radical activism is beyond good – risk is life

In conclusion, left-wing activism is what effective anarchists, socialists, progressives, and egalitarians do. These agents are radical in that they go to the root and identify the underlying basis of injustice. They are activists because they understand that standing up in defiance is the only way to exert influence in the direction of greater democracy. Personal risk is necessarily a consequence.

Finally, because defiance and confrontation are characteristics of activism, and because such action is limited by the risk involved, it is often the case that more risk equals more effect. This leads to the conclusion that we should take as much risk as will maximize the effectiveness of our activism. Whereas Third World activists often don’t need to consider how much risk they should be taking, because they often don’t have a choice if they are to survive, First World left-wing activists who want to be worthy of the title probably should consider actions that will involve more risk. Having survived and learned from the backlash, experienced activists live a life of action, anchored in community and solidarity, and instinctively know how far to push it. Proportionate rewards are guaranteed. Risk is life.[6]


[1] Jeff Schmidt as cited by the author. The present essay is partially based on a lecture given in the activism course, 2006: http://www.yayacanada.com/rancourt_lecture_11-10-06.html . Course material is posted at http://www.alternativevoices.ca/ .

[2] Rebick, Judy, 2000, Imagine Democracy. Stoddart, Toronto.

[3] del Moral, Andrea, 2002, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. http://www.lipmagazine.org/articles/featdelmoral_nonprofit_p.htm

[4] Schmidt, Jeff, 2000, Disciplined Minds. Rowman & Littlefield.

[5] Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Gradual Change Is Not Progress. http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=viewArticle&code=RAN20060503&articleId=2377

[6] Murphy, Brian K., 1999, Transforming Ourselves Transforming the World. Fernwood.

[7] Zinn, Howard, 2001, A People’s History of the United States. Perennial Classics.

[8] Mitchell, Peter R. and Schoeffel, John, 2002, Understanding Power, the Indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, NY.

[9] Noble, David F., 2005, Beyond the Promised Land, The Movement and the Myth. Between the Lines, Toronto.

[10] Malatesta, Errico, 1891, Anarchy. New translation from the Italian by Vernon Richards, Freedom Press, 1974, 1994.

[11] Said, Edward W., 1994, Representations of the Intellectual. Vintage Books, NY.

[12] Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Malalai Joya Breaks the Fear Barrier in Ottawa.

Epilogue: Alternative definition of activism, and a parallel goal

I am grateful to Jeff Schmidt who provided critical comments on this essay. Jeff also pointed out that another goal of left-wing activists is to make more activists: This automatically creates more democracy, as more people exert influence.

In defining activism, I struggled with the enticing alternative choice that activism would be restricted to left-wing activism whereas ring-wing activists would be termed militant right-wingers. This would be consistent with most of mediascape usage of the term activism, including the term activist judge. In the mainstream media, the term activist has a negative connotation and is usually reserved for left-wing activists. Right-wing activism is downplayed or is termed extremism rather than activism. The implication is that it is an extreme of legitimate aspirations whereas activism, like radicalism and anarchism, are incorrectly equated with chaos and destruction. Most activists are left-wing activists because present social structures are more in line with right-wing ideology and because ring-wingers are more easily controlled by fear and can more easily be made to fight other groups rather than the power structure. Fear and perceived danger cause one to want to be protected and this often overrides democratic aspirations. Perceived safety breeds cooperation. Perceived danger breeds tribalism. We need to actuate that cooperation breeds safety and distributed power breeds education and responsibility.