Thursday, May 4, 2017

Bret Smart

Sugarcane field burning in Brazil, 2007, in a consequence of the drive to replace fossil fuels with "renewable" biofuels. UN photo by Eskinder Debebe via NASA's earthobservatory website, part of the NASA climate research program Donald Trump proposes to shut down because as Mick Mulvaney says, "We're not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that." But Bret Stephens, while he certainly would say that's not smart, thinks it's more important to remind us that scientists do bad things too.

Shorter Bret Stephens, "Climate of Unintended Consequences", New York Times, May 4 2017:
What part of "I'm smarter than you" don't you understand?
Actually, he wrote his own shorter,  published on Monday, in replies to questions on his awful début:
A decade ago we were plowing money into ethanol subsidies as one response to climate change. But that turned out to be not just environmentally destructive but was also arguably responsible for the spike in food prices that soon followed, as farmers turned away from cultivating corn for human consumption to cultivating it for ethanol production. 
And today, still defending himself, spinning that bit out to 14 paragraphs plus a conclusion tacked on to the effect that we really can't do anything about global warming until we've done some more research because biofuels are a failure, and already Germans are paying the highest electricity bills on earth, which I'm not going to get to in this piece if ever.

Only for one thing the biofuels movement, as it worked out in the US under the George W. Bush administration ethanol push, wasn't a response to climate change.

It was a response to the last crisis in crude oil prices from 2003 to 2008 or so, enraging drivers and people who have to pay home heating bills, and the feeling that Americans were suffering to fill the coffers of the Saudi people who knocked down the World Trade Center and killed thousands even as we waged war on the Iraqi people who didn't, and the nativist dream of "energy independence". And the needs of farmers, especially in all-important Iowa, who had ethanol stars in their eyes, and with good reason, because ethanol may have been a failure for everybody else, but it was a huge success for them, which is why we still haven't given it up yet—those farmers are tenacious:

Via farmdocdaily.
And of course Emperor Trump and his eminent friend and advisor Mr. Icahn are still ethanol enthusiasts, even though the emperor doesn't even believe in global warming, unless he does, which is hard to say, since he doesn't remember himself much of the time.

Biofuels belonged to the combat against global warming only as one tranche in a whole suite of programs for developing renewable fuels—in one of those diversity-of-approaches strategies that Stephens, following Andrew Revkin, accuses climate change activists of rejecting, because climate change activists don't in fact reject them—and it was always one of the least scientifically attractive. Except for the promise that voters wouldn't have to change their behavior in complex and upsetting ways like driving electric vehicles or using mass transit, and those agribiz millionaires.

Scientists were perfectly aware of that at the time, too. As Stephens notes, ethanol doesn't burn as clean as we were told by the politicians, producing for one thing 20 times as much acetaldehyde as petroleum gasoline, a product that interacts with sunlight to make smog-producing ozone (London is having an air pollution crisis that may be caused by its chip-fat diesel taxis). And as Stephens doesn't note, the source he links to for that fact was from 2007, and part of the science the Bush administration should have been consulting.

It was also well known, or should have been, as of 2007 (that's the date of the source cited by my Wikipedia source), that the clearing of forest to grow biofuels crops would increase CO2 emissions more than ethanol would reduce them as well as very significant emissions of nitrous oxide, said to be 300 times more virulent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Also in 2007 international bureaucrats and science celebrities were working to spread the word that ethanol was a threat to food security around the world:
Last month Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, called biofuels a "crime against humanity" and asked for a five-year moratorium on the practice of using food crops for fuel1.
It was only the latest voice in what seems to be turning into a backlash against biofuels. In September, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development issued a sceptical assessment of biofuels, warning that they could cause more problems than they solve2.
Even the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall got involved in September, warning that the demand for more biofuels is causing rainforests to be cut down to grow more sugar cane and oil palms.
Thus, far from being a consequence of arrogant scientists certain they were "100% right", the ethanol failure—still ongoing—was caused by politics ignoring the science that was there.

There's more, but I can't.

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