Anyone who has followed my social media feed knows I am regularly tagged by activists hoping I will amplify a post they have prepared. Sometimes I re-tweet those posts and sometimes I critique them. This week I had one that definitely fit in the “critique” file. I politely highlighted a couple errors to its author and he immediately blocked me. Normally, I just ignore these posts thereafter, but this one represents a type of argument I hear often from individuals who have spent too much time engrossed in political science and too little time learning environmental science.
The blog post, prepared by a political science grad student called Milan Ilnyckyj (Milan), is titled “Overcoming fossil dependence and building the world we want“. It represents his attempt to defend himself against the “hypocrite argument” used in the climate change/pipeline debate.
The reason the charge of hypocrisy is used so often in this debate is because it represents a valid concern. We live in a world full of hypocrites who will say one thing in public and do another in the privacy of their own lives. The problem is that until you have personally tried to go without fossil fuels you can’t really understand how hard it really will be. So a hypocrite is apt to make claims that are not founded on an understanding of the scope of the challenge, usually that doing so will be relatively easy
Hypocrisy is not the direct topic of this blog post so I will stop there. For a much more nuanced discussion of the hypocrisy argument in the fossil fuel debate see my previous post: On Seattle’s Kayaktivists: Are they really hypocrites? FYI, I am also preparing a post on the tu quoque fallacy which I will put online sometime soon.
Going back the article, Milan claims that his post has three parts/goals: 1) climate change makes it necessary to move on from fossil fuels, 2) we have alternatives to them as both sources of energy and feedstocks, and 3) system change happens at the political level and not at the level of individual choice.
We can all agree on point 1. We really do need to move on from fossil fuels. I have made that point repeatedly on this blog and in my other public discussions of the topic. As for points 2 and 3? The simple truth is we don’t have alternatives for most critical uses of fossil fuels (as I will explain later) and political changes are built on individual action. Individual action serves as the impetus for collective action. So to suggest that we can make massive global political changes without anyone making individual changes represents magical thinking.
The blog post starts with a reasonable recitation of the political arguments underlying the science of climate change. The initial introduction demonstrates that, like a good grad student, Milan is capable of correctly regurgitating basic facts as long as you avoid the complex science. But even early in this section it becomes clear that the author is unclear of the science he is regurgitating. As an example, the post demonstrates confusion about the topic of sea level rise claiming that “sea level is always at more or less the same height“. That claim would come as a big surprise to the scientists at NOAA:
Similarly, the author apparently does not understand what the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) used in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report actually represent. The blog’s claim that RCP8.5 is a “business as usual” scenario is a common error for activists but not one I would expect from someone who claims to understand the topic.
The blogs technical failings are truly exposed in the first interpretive section: “2. We have alternatives for both energy and raw materials“. The section starts with some pablum about solar energy and switches to citing a popular book by “Cambridge physicist David MacKay”: “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air“. The book is a must-read for energy types but only from an electricity generation perspective. Unfortunately, the author passed away before he was able to move from the big picture theoretical discussions to address the nuts and bolts of replacing fossil fuels in the transportation industry (where it really matters to make the cuts we need). It doesn’t say HOW we replace current airliners with hydrogen-powered airliners, it simply asserts it must be done. To suggest that it provides a pathway to a fossil fuel-free future oversells what the author was able to achieve.
The next section of the blog was the one that really caught my eye. Milan asserts that we don’t need petrochemicals because “fossil fuels aren’t made of anything special chemically. We can get carbon and hydrogen from all sorts of carbon-neutral sources.” Such abject ignorance of organic chemistry simply left me stunned. To imagine that we can replace all our complex petrochemicals using carbon dioxide and hydrogen leaves me wondering whether Milan has taken a single chemistry course in his life? Admittedly, we could certainly go back to natural rubber, as long as we were willing to destroy ecosystems to grow massive rubber tree plantations but that wouldn’t be ecosystem-friendly.
The special advantage of petrochemicals is that they provide us with the benefits of millions of years of Mother Nature’s synthetic organic chemistry expertise combined with the input of millions of years of solar energy all captured in the compounds themselves. Petrochemicals represent a treasure trove of stored chemical energy that simply cannot be replaced given our current scientific knowledge and energy systems. So yes, fossil fuels are made of something special and at this point in our technological progress they are simply irreplaceable.
The author also imagines that generations of scientists missed really obvious discoveries and that our current scientific expertise can suddenly make all the huge breakthroughs we failed to make in the last 200 years. He explains we need to find “new ways to make agricultural fertilizer without natural gas, run farming equipment without diesel, manufacture steel without coke, and make low-carbon concrete or concrete substitutes.” Apparently he is not aware that generations of chemists have worked on methods to fix nitrogen and simply waving his hands won’t suddenly allow modern chemists to replace the Haber process with a new approach. But that is only the start. He imagines that all we need to do is make a wish to create new ways to generate synthetic rubbers and plastics, pharmaceuticals, polymers and chemical feedstocks. To imagine this can be done easily is the sign of a political scientist with no awareness of what complex organic chemistry really entails.
The final section of the blog is the topping on the cake. It is called “3. How change happens” and it really needs to be read to be appreciated. It starts with a bad analogy and then proceeds to magical thinking, never once explaining how we can accomplish what the author claims is necessary. It assumes some deus ex machina scenario where all the challenges we face simply melt away. It skips over technological restrictions and imagines that simply by wishing hard enough that we can make airliners that don’t emit carbon and can create a more equitable global system (apparently the Chinese Communist Party and Russia’s Vladimir Putin will simply bow out to make it all work).
The most bizarre part of the entire piece is that this is the only place in the entire blog that attempts to address the hypocrisy argument directly and in response the author simply says that since climate change is such a big problem individual actions don’t really matter. He argues that instead we should rely on some big government to make the changes for us. Since our current governments aren’t doing it fast enough he argues our current system should be replaced by a completely new, never-before-seen, form of government that can ignore the wishes of the populace and impose its will on the planet. Except environmental history shows us that change only happens when a groundswell of individual action makes it politically palatable to institute larger changes.
Honestly while I hate to push eyeballs to his website you really do have to read this last section, because reading it really helps you understand the mindset of the people fighting against things like pipelines. There is simply no connection to reality in this section and this is supposed to be the practical “how do we get it done” part of the post.
Going back to the intention of Milan’s post: we both agree that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, but the post fails in any way to explain how we can do so for our most important uses (transportation and petrochemicals) and why people who live a profligate lifestyle while demanding austerity in others shouldn’t be called out as hypocrites. Most importantly, its plan on making the change happen simply involves wishful thinking. In essence the blog post doesn’t do anything the author says it does. What it does do, however, is display the author’s fundamental misunderstanding about environmental science for all to read.
As a pragmatic environmentalist I can’t emphasize how hard getting off fossil fuels will be. Part of understanding the challenges involves trying to live a low-carbon lifestyle yourself. When you haven’t walked the walk it becomes clear when you try to talk the talk. When activists claim it will be an easy task they make it harder to build up the will to fight the battles that need to be fought.
So Milan replied in a blog post. Amusingly the reply demonstrated that he simply doesn’t understand the underlying science. He Misunderstands what the IPCC said about future scenarios (i.e what is business as usual); misunderstands my critique of Dr. MacKay’s work (electricity and energy are not the same thing) and continue to demonstrate that he has no sense of what is involved in organic chemistry. My major complaint is that he simply doesn’t understand the science and his reply is to provide more proof of my point.
The funniest part is his discussion about blocking me. To be clear his block came immediately after I responded to a post where he tagged me. Let’s say that again, he went out of his way to tag me and then blocked me when I responded politely. He initiated the discussion and then metaphorically held his hands to his ears when I responded. Simple suggestion here, if you don’t want someone to reply, then don’t tag them….see how simple that can be?