A fable about science and climate change

This post will tell a simple fable. The characters are fictional, although the scenario is based on reality. At the end of the fable are some questions that puzzle me.

The smelter at Davy before it closed (photo: Jmchugh)

Billy-Bob Smith lives in the small town of Davy in the US South. He worked in the aluminium smelter there, until pressure from environmentalists closed it down. He is now unemployed (and rather bitter).

Aluminium production is very energy-intensive (the metal has been called “crystallised electricity”), and the smelter at Davy was fed by coal-fired power. Its demise is part of the general decline in US aluminium smelting (see the chart below, produced from this data).

Of course, demand for aluminium doesn’t just go away – world aluminium production is actually increasing. The plant at Davy was replaced within the year by a new plant in China, which was also fed by coal-fired power. In fact, in 2015 about two-thirds of Chinese electricity production (900 GW) was coal-fired. Chinese coal-fired power generation is projected to increase by 20% to 1100 GW in 2020 (making up about 55% of overall Chinese electricity production in that year, given the non-coal power plants that will also be coming on line). For comparison, the new coal-fired capacity being added in China each year is roughly equal to the entire generation capacity of Australia.

Billy-Bob Smith is very cynical about the environmentalists who effectively outsourced his job to China, with (as he correctly points out) no net benefit to the planet, and no net reduction in carbon emissions. In fact, Billy-Bob believes that the environmental activists in his state were funded by the Chinese government to destroy American jobs. Needless to say, he voted for Donald Trump in the recent US election.

Coal-fired power plant in Shuozhou, China (photo: Kleineolive)

Alicia Jones is a professor of atmospheric physics at a university not far from Davy. She has made significant advances in climate modelling, improving the way that radiative forcing is handled in computer models. There is even talk of nominating her for a Nobel Prize one day. Outside of her university work, she regularly gives talks to schoolchildren on the threat of climate change and the need to address the problem before it’s too late. She also frequently appears on local television. She was part of the group which lobbied to close down the smelter at Davy, in the recent US election she voted for Jill Stein, and she has marched several times in Washington, DC.

US Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (photo: Tar Sands Blockade)

My questions are these:

  1. What makes an intelligent person like Alicia Jones believe that simply moving carbon emissions to China actually addresses climate change?
  2. Being fully aware of the usefulness of computer modelling, why did Alicia Jones not do any economic modelling on the expected follow-on effects of closing the Davy plant?
  3. Is virtue ethics, deontological ethics, or consequentialism the best ethical framework for handling questions of this kind?
  4. In general, does the expertise of scientists lend any credibility to their economic, political, or philosophical pronouncements? Should it do so?
  5. What does it say about Alicia Jones’ ability to communicate scientific issues that over 50% of people in her state (people like Billy-Bob) do not believe in anthropogenic climate change at all? What does it say about scientific communication in general?
  6. Do problems with peer review affect the public perception of science?
  7. What does it say about the education system in the USA that Billy-Bob does not even believe that the earth is warming? After all, many US cities have temperature records going back over a century. Mean temperatures for Newport, RI, for example, show a 1.7°C rise between 1893 and 2016 (see chart below – the blue line is a cubic interpolation, while the red line is the result of loess smoothing).
  8. What can be done to improve this particular debate?


2 thoughts on “A fable about science and climate change

  1. To adress #5 and #7, I’m not sure what it says about the USA, but here in the Netherlands we actually had a few of such discussions in High-school 20 years ago. One of the problems we had already back then was that some of those following non-beta subjects (and growing up to be politicians and such) did not really understand why they had to care or understand about the data beta subjects produced, because they would drop those classes later anyway. (Reverse, I had trouble understanding why we had to read literature for languages, it was not like we read Darwin or Newton for the science classes).
    Similarly, I once came across a internet discussion started by a journalism student who wondered why he learned about math and sciences. (I pointed him to your blog as example of covering science subjects)
    So I guess some meta-education needs to be given early on about *why* we learn the things we need to learn to function in a democratic technical society.;

    As for #1, do we know that global warming was the reason she wanted it closed, or was it creating other pollution (air, water) too? And did she realize it would move, or expect it to be replaced with a cleaner factory, or other materials?

    #2 probably because it was outside her expert-ease (sp?) so did not have her interest, and she did not expect to be taken as seriously without having credentials in that field. (A lot of science is clustered now). So part of it is scientists not being able to ‘forward’ their stufies into meta-studies of other scientists. And of the Media not always being able to place things in context to get answers to the obvious next question

    #6: possibly; aluminium may be energy-intense, but it is recyclable, practically non-toxic, and not damaging to the environment on it’s own. Peers should have compared to plastics and carbonfiber alternatives to get a balanced conclusion.

    #8 Ironically; raising prices on foreign steel would be an excellent way to protect domestic steel from cleaner factories against foreign ‘dirty’ competition.
    Trump is promoting that raise but without the laws for cleaner production.
    (A similar discussion we have in Europe for some time now, especially about solar panel production, but without much follow-through so far)

    • Thank you for that very thoughtful reply.

      Regarding education, I really don’t know how we can improve things. But I find it interesting that the best-educated people I know are all mathematicians and scientists, who picked up languages, history, literature, and so forth along the side. The boundary between what C.P. Snow called the two cultures seems to be permeable mostly in one direction.

      I agree with you on meta-education, and I’ve blogged in the past about why we study mathematics.

      Regarding several of your points, I think the problem is that when the overall problem is very hard, we have a tendency to focus on addressing only part of it, possibly at the cost of properly addressing the problem as a whole. That is probably why my fictional Professor Alicia Jones effectively lobbied simply to export carbon emissions to China. Solving part of the problem is always easier than solving the whole thing.

      The only possible way of addressing complex global problems as a whole, it seems to me, is to get a wide variety of people with different kinds of expertise to work together (which is not easy). It’s also important to think quantitatively about issues, rather than in simplistic good/bad terms. Your comments about aluminium are in line with that – rather than simply thinking of aluminium as “bad,” we should compare it (quantitatively) against the alternatives. And when we do that, it might turn out not to be all that bad after all.

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