Sunday, June 6, 2010

Oil spill, climate policies, and the role of science

In yesterday's New York Times editorial, we can read that President Obama brought together the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the urgency to pass an energy bill.  There seems to be nothing more obvious than doing so. In the second part of the editorial, more 'traditional' climate arguments for passing the energy bill are mentioned, which are based exclusively on climate science:
'(...) persuading the Senate to act is not only a matter of leadership, but a matter of international obligation. At the Copenhagen climate conference in December, Mr. Obama committed the United States to a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 — the minimum that scientists believe necessary to begin steering the world away from the worst impacts of a warming planet.'
This latter argument sounds pretty esoteric to me, compared to the robustness of the oil argument.

The dependency on fossil fuels, the need for cleaner energy and climate politics are clearly connected. A series of other articles show that the economy of fishermen and the very existence of species and ecosystems are endangered; and Bob Herbert reminds us that in South America 'crude' had even worse effects on people and land. And last but not least, there is the political mess. Oil means uncontrollable corporate industries, corruption, irresponsibility, dependency. Just read the news. Do you need more arguments for an energy bill?
In contrast, the argument that 17% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020 will avoid 'worst impacts' sounds like magical science to me. Is there really a serious science behind this very precise statement? Compared to the reality of the oil spill, this argument sounds pretty fragile to me.  Aren't these numbers not only 'invented' to turn the insight that 'we have to reduce greenhouse gases  immediately' more credible? If this is true, climate science is (mis-)used as a kind of magic against the mess that the dependency on oil and coal has produced. As if 'science' could speak magical words that free us from the ugly politics that are involved to clean up the mess that the dependency on oil has produced. In reality, science does not have that magical power. It's just science, and to get rid of oil & coal dependency and its corporate structures it needs more than magical numbers. While the local events in the Gulf of Mexico are real, the globally negotiated climate seems to be abstract and esoteric. I think Obama is right when he establishes a link between the national climate bill and the oil spill. It's a more robust argument than the one exclusively based on a somehow esoteric climate science.


Anonymous said...

Another example of imprecise science being mobilized in the debate surrounding the oil spill is UCAR's press release about oil going up the atlantic coast.
More on that here:
Is this a responsible way to participate in the debate?

isaacschumann said...

Thanks for posting this Werner,

I agree it is more than appropriate for Obama to link climate legislation and the oil spill. I think this also highlights the limitiations of focusing so much of the climate change debate on CO2 emissions, the horrible effects of oil production are experienced wherever oil production is.

To be sure, better regulation is needed, but human error and incompetence are as near to certainties in life as we can get, so things like this will continue to happen. I think a better distribution of the costs is necessary. In the current system, the costs are disproportionally borne by those living near production(who also tend to be the poorest), not by those creating the demand.

IMO, Andy Revkin gets it right on;

"The oil disaster doesn’t belong to BP, or to President Obama or his predecessor; we all own it."

Zajko said...

I'm also hoping this opens the door to more pragmatic arguments about the energy infrastructure. Understanding the "energy problem" in some ways seems simpler than the "climate problem", with more room for common ground among those who are not currently benefiting from production.
However in addition to the challenge and cost of reconfiguring the infrastructure with all of its inertia and entrenched power, there has been a lack of direct effects to break people out of their business-as-usual assumptions. The oil spill offers one such opportunity (fuel prices are another), but even there much of the debate has revolved around how to conduct or regulate deep-sea drilling. Connecting it to the bigger issue of the future of energy requires a bit of a leap. Sure, the images of the oil slick are more "real" than anything associated with global warming, but what do they really mean? I'm afraid that meaning here is still very much up for grabs.