Mixing politics and science

The Arizona Republic recently published an article describing how carbon dioxide emissions in Arizona increased by 61 percent over the past 20 years:

http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/2009/11/13/20091113air-carbon1113.html#reply18760004

The article pinpoints this increase on increased automobile emissions and increased electric power generation using fossil fuels. The article, and the report it references, suggests a solution:

“The best way to reduce pollution levels, the report’s authors argued, is to increase the use of renewable-energy sources, such as solar and wind, and more strictly regulate the largest polluters, such as coal-burning power plants.”

Typical of newspaper science articles, the author’s training is journalism rather than science. Also, this article sources a report from an advocacy group, Environment Arizona http://www.environmentarizona.org/, which means the source includes as much politics as science. I won’t get into the trueness of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) here, as that confounds relevance of my point; the article illustrates of the dangers of politicizing a scientific hypothesis.

AGW is a valid scientific hypothesis. That means, correct or incorrect, the science behind the hypothesis is real and testable. Increasingly, AGW is also a politicized hypothesis, whose truthfulness is tested in public opinion or in a political forum rather than a laboratory or field study. Unfortunately, the political arguments detach from and confuse the underlying scientific studies that are important for an objective truth. (I am well aware that the scientific community itself is political and influenced by un-objective directions, but that is another issue)

This Arizona Republic article focuses attention on power plants and energy production concerns, yet fails to mention that the consumer drives the demand. In other words, the article entirely blames the power generation technique for the problem without considering the consumer, whose demand initiates the pollution. “Blame the other guy” rhetoric has been a powerful political engine since the invention of politics, and this tradition continues though the AGW debate.

Our continued existence as a technological society requires renewable energy sources not just for pollution reasons, but as replacements for finite-supply fossil fuels. Harnessing solar and wind energy greatly advances us toward sustainability, but reducing demand is paramount to meeting sustainability goals. Entirely focusing attention upon the producer does not discourage wastefulness by the consumer, and in some cases may actually justify waste. Consumer attitudes need to change in a way that discourages wastefulness or the efficiency gains by the producer risk being equaled by increased demand by the consumer. A “green” label may make someone feel less guilty about consuming more. More efficient air conditioners may encourage people to keep their homes cooler in a feel-good tradeoff; just as drinking a diet soft drink reduces the guilt of eating a candy bar an hour later. Knowing that the electricity is being generated by a wind turbine may reduce the guilt of leaving lights on, or may encourage adding lighting that isn’t needed. Many believe recycling constitutes environmentalism, while failing to consider if the item they are recycling needed consumption in the first place.

The evolution of automobiles provides an excellent example of this tradeoff. My 45-year-old car obtains approximately the same city gas mileage as its modern counterpart, despite that fact that efficiency of internal combustion engines has doubled over that time span. What happened to those efficiency gains? Nearly all of them have been traded for more power, more safety features, and more powered accessories. While some of the safety features and increased power are positives, some could be considered luxury. We want bigger and faster than what practicality deems necessary to get the job done. Is there practical value in being able to accelerate to 60mph in under 10 seconds?

The future requires alternative energy sources. Hopefully, the “feel good” nature of the “green” label will not excuse wastefulness. Small changes in attitude by the consumer can produce significant results, and those changes can come without repercussion to lifestyle or standard of living.

I will approach this topic again with practical examples.

– kevin

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