Precaution the new aggression

In the up-is-down world of the corporate media and higher education, the precautionary principle is now an example of aggression. Let me explain.

In its latest rating, Politifact analysed the question: Could methane be worse for the climate than coal?  They  quote my URI colleague, geoscientist David Fastovsky:

But without appropriate historical context, he says he isn’t ready to say that fracked gas is worse for the climate than coal. That is a very aggressive statement to make, he says.

Is he awaiting the historical “oh oops, we just passed yet another tipping point?”  The question about the effect on the climate of the national policy of methane as a bridge fuel came up in a position paper of the RI Environmental Justice League.   The paper shreds National Grid’s proposal for an LNG liquefaction facility at Fields Point in Providence.  This is about public policy, health problems, poverty and environmental racism, not ivory-tower science.

Maybe by “appropriate historical context” David Fastovsky means that in reaching a verdict on methane as a bridge fuel one has to decide whether we count on having a decade or a century to avoid climate chaos.  If so, I agree and I’ll get to that issue.

During the last 13 months, I was arrested twice in FANG fracked gas actions.  One act of civil resistance was my refusal to leave Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s office until he ended his support for fracked gas—he still has not, to the contrary.  The second arrest was after locking down with my pediatrician friend Curt Nordgaard as we blocked the Spectra Energy Gates of Hell in Burrillville, RI.

I took this “very aggressive” stance even though I knew full well that there is an infinitesimal chance that  regulation will prove Cornell University’s Robert Howarth and coworkers wrong.  Underlying their work is a judgement call about time scales.  Howarth addresses this explicitly in his paper A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas.

Rather than reciting the full abstract of Howarth’s paper, we often say: “Methane is worse for the climate than coal and oil.”  Yes, this is a short-cut, but does the media ever have time for the fully qualified truth?  No, concision is what they want!

timthumbHere is my take on the question of time scales.  If I look at the 2015 Arctic Report Card  and how fast that part of the world is warming up, I conclude that the relevant time scale for climate tipping points is very likely to be a decade, not a century.  Not convinced?  Read this: Thresholds and closing windows: risks of irreversible cryosphere climate change with its:

Never has a single generation held the future of so many coming generations, species and ecosystems in its hands.

Politifact quotes Raymond Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago. He implies that, because of methane’s short (about ten years) life time in the atmosphere, the effects of methane on the climate are reversible.   I disagree, but  let James Hansen speak:

I asked glaciologist Jay Zwally if I would be crucified for a caption such as: “On a slippery slope to Hell, a stream of snowmelt cascades down a moulin on the Greenland ice sheet. The moulin, a near-vertical shaft worn in the ice by surface water, carries water to the base of the ice sheet. There the water is a lubricating fluid that speeds motion and disintegration of the ice sheet. Ice sheet growth is a slow dry process, inherently limited by the snowfall rate, but disintegration is a wet process, spurred by positive feedbacks, and once well underway it can be explosively rapid.” [emphasis added]

Zwally replied “Well, you have been crucified before, and March is the right time of year for that, but I would delete ‘to Hell’ and ‘explosively”’.

The principle of practical irreversibility is sound, but the estimated time of arrival in Hell cannot be predicted accurately.  I spent most of my scientific carrier studying these kinds of “explosive” instabilities.  Take my word for it: there will be no reliable prediction until after the fact.

There is not a word in Politifact’s analysis about the numerous references in the discussion about threats to the climate system starting on page 108 of this compendium, but the real problem with Politifact’s rating is that it is ethically challenged.  It is blind to the precautionary principle, which says that the burden of proof that a public policy is not harmful falls on those who want implement it.  As a worthy member of the corporate media, Politifact reverses the burden of proof and puts it on the People.

Stated differently, Politifact fails to address how one makes a moral choice in the absence of certainty.  Suppose we knew that the probability that Howarth is correct is 10%?  (I think it’s over 90%, but that is not the point.)  Would “only 10%” justify ignoring the risk, continuing business as usual and expanding the fossil fuel infrastructure?

Would you play Russian Roulette with a ten-shot revolver with one bullet? Does the expected survival of 9 out of 10 players reduce to 10% the truth value of the statement that this game is lethal?

Do we demand certainty in our perpetual war decisions?  Of course not; Cheney’s One-Percent Doctrine prescribes war to avoid risks at the 1% level, but no such doctrine is applied to protecting the biosphere.  The ruling class will survive climate change just fine —thank you!

Politifiction, here is your homework assignment.  Rate this statement in the President’s Climate Action Plan:

“Burning natural gas is about one-half as carbon-intensive as coal […]”

Hint: notice that there’s not a word about fugitive methane nor about the destruction visited upon communities near the wellheads, the pipelines, the railways and across the globe.

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Peter Nightingale is a theoretical physicist and teaches at the University of Rhode Island. He strives to leave behind a more just and peaceful, sustainable post-capitalist world for future generations, and his children and grandchildren in particular.

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