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Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 December 2008

I recently came across an old copy of Arthur Koestler’s “The Case of the Midwife Toad”. Originally published in 1971, it’s an exploration of a rather tragic footnote in the history of evolutionary science. Back in the early years of the 20th Century (prior to the understanding of DNA, but after Mendelian genetics had become well known), there was still a remnant of the biological community who preferred the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics over the Darwinian idea of natural selection of random mutations. One of the vanguard for the Lamarckian idea was Paul Kammerer whose specialty was the breeding of amphibians that apparently few others could match. He claimed that he could get his toads and salamanders to acquire characteristics that were useful in the new environments in which he raised his specimens. This was touted loudly (in the New York Times for instance) as proof of Lamarckian inheritance and Kammerer was hailed as a ‘new Darwin’. It all ended very badly when one toad specimen was found to be faked (by who remains a mystery), and Kammerer killed himself shortly afterwards (though there may have been more involved than scientific disgrace).

The details of the experiments and controversy can be read online (with various slants) here and here, and a more modern non-replication of one of his experiments is described here. However, the reason I bring this up here is much more related to how the scientific community and Koestler dealt with this scientific maverick and the analogies that has for the climate science and its contrarians.

There are (at least) four points where the analogies with climate science are strong: First, there were clear philosophical motives for supporting Lamarckism (as there are for denying human effects on climate change) (see below). These are strongly articulated in Koestler’s book, and it is obvious that the author feels some sympathy with that argument. Second, there is idealization of the romantic notion of the scientist-as-hero, sacrificing their all (literally in Kammerer’s case) for the pursuit of truth in the teeth of establishment opposition (cf Svensmark). Third, there is the outrage at the apparent dirty tricks, rumours and persecution. Finally, there is the longing for a redemption – a time when the paradigm shift will occur and the hero will be proven right.

Enough time has passed and enough additional scientific evidence has been gathered however to show that Kammerer’s ideas are never going to be accepted into the mainstream. Therefore, we can use this episode to highlight how people’s misunderstanding of scientific process can lead them astray.

So let’s start with the non-scientific reasons why Kammerer’s ideas had resonance. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) puts it well (p143):

Just as Lamarckianism combines easily with an idealism in which the entire creation is fulfilling God’s vast plan by constant upward striving, so also does it combine easily with political doctrines that emphasize the building of a better world.

The point is that without Lamarckianism, none of the striving and achievement of a parent impacts their progeny’s genetic material. That was a depressing thought for many people (what is the point of striving at all?), and hence there was a clear non-scientific yearning for Lamarckian inheritance to be correct. I use the past tense in referring to these almost 100 year-old arguments, but Koestler’s book and more recent attempts to rehabilitate these ideas tap into these same (misguided) romantic notions. (Odd aside, one of the most positive treatments of this “neo-Lamarckianism” is by Michael Duffy, a frequent climate contrarian Australian journalist). Note that I am distinguishing the classic ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ from the much more respectable study of epigenetics.

The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it’s clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story. Thus while Koestler can’t be uniquely faulted for thinking that Lamarckianism rose and fell with Kammerer, that perspective leads him to imbue certain events with much more significance than is really warranted.

For instance, one of the more subtle misconceptions in the book though is how Koestler thinks that scientific arguments get settled. He places enormous emphasis on a academic tour that Kammerer made to the UK which included a well-documented talk in Cambridge in which the subsequently-notorious specimen was also in attendance. In fact, Koestler devotes a large number of pages to first-hand recollections of the talk. Koestler also criticises heavily the arch-protagonist in this story (a Dr. Bateson) who did not attend Kammerer’s talk, even though he presumably could have, while continuing to criticise his conclusions. The talk is in fact held up to be the one missed opportunity for some academic mano-a-mano that Koestler presumably thinks would have settled things.

Except that this is not how controversial ideas get either accepted or rejected. Sure, publishing papers, giving talks and attending conferences are all useful in bringing ideas to a wider audience, but they are very rarely the occasion of some dramatic denouement and mass conversion of the skeptical. Instead, ideas get accepted because of the increasing weight of evidence that supports them – and that usually comes in dribs and drabs. A replication here, a theoretical insight there, a validated prediction etc. Only in hindsight does there appear to be a clean sequence of breakthroughs that can be seen to have led inexorably to the new conclusions. At the time, the landscape is far more ambiguous. Thus in focusing on one specific talk, and on its reception by one particularly outspoken opponent, Koestler misses the wider issue – which was that Kammerer’s ideas just didn’t have any independent support. The wider community thus saw his work (as far as I can tell) as a curiosity: possibly his findings were correct, but his interpretation was likely not, and maybe his findings weren’t all that reproducible in any case?

This remains the issue, if Lamarckian evolution were possible, it should have been viewable in hundreds of other systems that were much easier to replicate than Kammerer’s toads (nematodes perhaps?). Absent that replication, no amount of exciting talks will have persuaded scientists. In that, scientists are probably a little different from the public, or at least the public who went to Kammerer’s more public lectures where he was very warmly received.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Kammerer’s more vocal opponents would occasionally give vent to their true feelings. Koestler is particular critical of Bateson who, in retrospect, does appear to have gone a little far in his public critiques of Kammerer. However, Koestler perhaps doesn’t realise how common quite scathing criticism is in the halls of academe. This rarely gets written down explicitly, but it is nonetheless there, and forms a big part of how well some people’s ideas are received. If someone is perceived as an exaggerator, or an over-interpreter of their results, even their most careful work will not get a lot of support.

Koestler ends his book with the familiar refrain that since modern science is incomplete, alternative theories must continue to be pursued. He states that since “contemporary genetics has no answers to offer to the problem of the genesis of behaviour”, the replication the key experiments (which he clearly expected to vindicate Kammerer), would very likely make biologists ‘sit up’ and have a long-lasting impact on the field. This notion fails to take into account the vast amount of knowledge that already exists and that makes certain kinds of ‘alternative’ theories very unlikely to be true. The link between this optimistic expectation and discussions of climate change is persuasively demonstrated in this pastiche.

There is one additional characteristic of this story that has some modern resonance, and that’s the idea that once someone starts accepting one class of illogical arguments, that leads them to accept others that aren’t really connected, but share some of the same characteristics. Some people have called this ‘crank magnetism‘. In Kammerer’s case, he was a great believer in the meaningfulness of coincidences and wrote a book trying to elucidate the ‘laws’ that might govern them. Koestler himself became a big proponent of parapsychology. And today there are examples of climate contrarians who are creationists or anti-vaccine campaigners. Though possibly this is just coincidence (or is it….?).

Of course, the true worth of any scientific idea is whether it leads to more successful predictions than other theories. So I’ll finish with a 1923 prediction that Kammerer made while he was on a speaking tour of the US: “Take a very pertinent case. The next generation of Americans will be born without any desire for liquor if the prohibition law is continued and strictly enforced” (NYT, Nov 28).

703 Responses to “Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad”

  1. 101
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Snorbert, Now I understand. The fact that you place any credibility in that second-rate, science-phobic, hack (God rest his soul) speaks volumes. There was not a single book he didn’t get the science seriously wrong.

  2. 102
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Galasyn wrote: “Um, who else is to blame … God? Satan? Elves? Aliens?”

    I’ll go with aliens. They are exploiting our own technology to transform the Earth into a planet more suitable for them to inhabit, and to kill off much of the indigenous life (particularly humans), before they launch the large scale invasion.

    This explanation is actually less ridiculous than the ones offered by some so-called “skeptics”.

  3. 103
    William says:

    RE #98 Jim
    You are to blame for all of the evils you site. Everytime you go home to your coal fired electrically supplied home and turn on your big screen and log onto your laptop or turn on your natural gas furnace or stove or drive to work or live at a per capita level that exceeds that of a subsistance farmer in China you are causing all of the ill effects you site. The problem is that over a billion Chinese are striving to get what you have and they are going to emit a lot of CO2 getting there.

    There has been a lot of discussion on this string but other than going on a crash program of building Nuclear Power plants I don’t see any solutions in the 10-20 year time frame. Anyone have some realistic solutions?

  4. 104
    Phil Scadden says:

    Paul. I would join with others and say dont go there with those questions. Its a loaded questionnaire focusing on the person perceives as the weaknesses in AGW. A better response might be:

    All data sets are relevant. A model should account for the data available within the prediction limits of the model and the errors associated with each data set. Every data set has strengths/weaknesses and issues associated with methodology. They all point one way though at a climate level. The critical issue for CLIMATE models is that they must be long enough to make an estimate of trends. Ie around 30 year. Asking for model predictions in 2 year and 5 year intervals is asking about weather not climate.

    Asking for formula used to project global mean temps, and the relationship between CO2 and temperature, indicates a profound misunderstanding of how models work. These plus the question about confidence limits seems to imply that they think GCM are statistical forecast models not physical models. Those formula dont exist and the CO2/temperature relationship is an output not an input.

    I am similarly suspicious of 17. The models create prediction for different greenhouse projections. They are tools for answering questions like “if we dont reduce CO2, then what will we get” or “if everyone meets Kyoto targets, then what will we get”. For modelling the past, the percentages are exactly what was present.
    The question about CO2% relevant to human activity is suspiciously like an attempt to ignore feedback – and I hope the questioner really mean CO2eq.

  5. 105
    Jim Galasyn says:

    William observes: “You are to blame for all of the evils you site.”

    Your point is well taken, but I do at least try to mitigate my impact on the cited evils, by: buying green electricity exclusively; buying locally grown, organic food; busing to work; avoiding pesticides and herbicides in my yard; and avoiding ocean-caught fish.

    My carbon footprint is approximately one ton per year — I pay $12 for my offsets from NativeEnergy.


  6. 106
    truth says:

    Jim Eager:
    I don’t know why you’re so quick to imply I’m lying.
    Maybe you could explain where exactly.
    Maybe some AGW proponents did warn about the problem with biodiesel, but they must have been very timid and muted.
    It’s they who have been given all the credibility around the world on the CO2 issue, and it’s they , not the sceptics, who have the ear of governments , the IPCC and vocal environmental groups—it’s their certainty that moves governments and business to adopt such measures—-and it’s they who are promoted and deferred to by the media, which demonises and shuts out , almost completely, the sceptics.
    It’s the AGW scientists and proponents who could have stopped it.
    It’s the AGW proponents who had all the influence at the Bali Conference, number crunching re ratification of Kyoto targets etc, while the burning, felling of rainforests and destruction of peat lands continued just down the road in other parts of Indonesia, [ as well as the destruction of rain forests in the Amazon].
    It’s AGW proponents, not sceptics who promote the ‘food miles’ issue, which could ruin budding food exporters in Africa, who have borrowed, worked and sacrificed their all, to grow crops for export to Europe, only to have their livelihoods threatened by European environmentalists and AGW adherents.
    What would the ‘food miles’ issue do to world trade?
    I’m sure most countries think they should continue to trade with countries distant from their own.
    Our conservative former Prime Minister in Australia, put forward, and funded, a Global Forest Initiative, aimed at ending the deforestation and promoting reforestation, and helping developing nations to do both, but was either ignored or sneered at , by environmentalists and the AGW crowd.
    You can ‘call me on’ anything you like, and cast any aspersions you like on my truthfulness—- but possible consequences, intended and otherwise, of the total uncritical adherence to AGW, and total silence on any doubts or questioning, that AGW adherents require of us all, are important matters for discussion.
    Some of the ‘mitigation’ measures may be disastrous and irreversible.
    This is why alternative scientific input on the science of AGW should be aired without vilification and retribution.

  7. 107
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Secular: Hollywood occasionally does the “alien un-terraforming” story, e.g., The Arrival and They Live.

    It explains so much.

    Then there’s the “aliens are going to fix it, whether we like it or not” story, e.g., Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still

    If only.

  8. 108
    Ray Ladbury says:

    “Truth”, maybe you got here late, so let me explain. It’s called science, and it’s about evidence. We have lots and lots of evidence, including things called the laws of physics that suggest very, very strongly that human beings are warming the planet. That is what the evidence says. So that is what the scientists tell governments and whoever else will listen, because, oh, I don’t know, we thought maybe they’d want to know that the climate on which all human civilization depends is about to change drastically, and with it our ability to feed the 9 billion mouths we’ll have on Earth by 2050. So that’s science. Wanna play? Great. Go get some EVIDENCE!

  9. 109
    Martin says:

    Truth (in response to post 106),

    I’m guessing that those in the vanguard of promoting an appropriate response to global warming would be surprised at your assessment of their influence (though maybe being in the US, the epicenter for climate denial, I underestimate this).

    I’d say that economic interests still trump environmental in most jurisdictions. That’s certainly the case here in the US where the many critics of corn-based ethanol were swamped by the economic interests (that have been pushing ethanol for far longer than concerns about global warming were prominent). Sure, those economic interests adopted the language of climate change, but make no mistake that it was economic interests responsible for the surge in ethanol and profligate biofuel development. It appears to be the case in more climate-conscious Europe were industries have managed to reduce the strength of carbon-reducing regulations. I’d wager that most of the world works in much the same way.

    Is limiting greenhouse gas emissions going to adversely impact some people more than others? Undoubtedly. Should we make every effort to mitigate the impact on the most vulnerable? Absolutely. Should we delay doing something to satisfy the remaining few who are grasping at tenuous threads of doubt? I think not. The impacts of global warming are likely to be FAR worse than the economic impacts of combating it, especially for the most economically vulnerable amongst us.



  10. 110
    Hank Roberts says:

    ‘truth’ there are wackos on all sides of any issue and they get nailed.

    Just one example:

  11. 111
    David B. Benson says:

    truth (106) — The tropical rainforest in the Amazon basin is primarily at hazard due to logging, both legal and illegal. Secondarily it is at hazard from ranchers raising beef cattle on the newly cleared land.

    Neither has much to do, directly, with the fact of AGW; for the former, avoid prodcuts made with topical hardwoods; for the latter don’t eat (very much) beef.

  12. 112
    Phil Scadden says:

    truth, you are being naive. Biofuel is politically and economically driven in USA (seen the posters? “Who you prefer to buy fuel from?” picture of Saudi man and picture of US farmer). AGW was simply an excuse. Ditto to “food miles”. There is some validity in arguments about flying strawberries around the world, but mostly is driven by agricultural protectionism.
    You keep trying to cast this debate into a one political fairness. Its not – if you dont like the AGW hypothesis then you need solid scientific evidence to the contrary – not carbon-lobby misinformation. Show us the published papers not the delusions of media commentators.

  13. 113
    Craig Allen says:

    William (#103),

    Why go on crash course in expensive nuclear when we would get a lot more bang for our buck with a massive ramp up in the implementation of thin film solar voltaics, solar thermal, or deep dry rock geothermal?

    Jim Galasyn (#105),

    All the plant-a-tree offset programs I’ve seen so are a joke. You get to pay a few bucks for them to plant trees, that over the next hundred years will sequester your emissions from today. We need a system whereby everyone is able to invest in a sequestration portfolio, building it up until the total amount of CO2 sequestered per year by all the offsets in said portfolio equal the annual emissions of an individual, business, company or government department.

    As a rule of thumb, if we assume that it takes a tree 100 years to do it’s job, then we should purchase upfront 100x the number of trees these companies claim is necessary, then augment it each year to account for attrition. So rather than $12, you need to fork out $1,200.

    Or even better, do as I am doing, and plant your own trees. If you don’t have land, then join a ‘nature-care’ group (here in Australia we call them bushcare or landcare groups) and help them restore the local woods (we call it bush) forest or wetland.

  14. 114
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Craig: NativeEnergy doesn’t plant trees, they finance renewable energy installations (wind turbines and methane digesters).

  15. 115
    Hank Roberts says:

    > restore

    Here’s a good book to start with. Look for it used, the 2nd ed.:

    Margolin, Malcolm (1985).
    The Earth Manual: How to Work on Wild Land without Taming It
    (rev. ed.). Berkeley: Heyday Books. ISBN 0-930588-18-5.

  16. 116
    Jim Eager says:

    Oh, poor “truth” and all the long-suffering, put upon and persecuted “skeptics” being denied access to the media when every media outlet scrambles and bends over backwards to represent “both sides” of the “story,” no matter how far removed from scientific reality one of the “sides” is.
    Cry us a river, I hear Australia can use the water.

    Your naivete in attributing overwhelming power over governments and international corporations alike to climate scientists and AGW realists, and blaming them for advocating massively publicly subsidized agribusiness ethanol and palm oil schemes and unscrupulous commodity traders driving up food prices is laughable, if not ludicrous.

  17. 117
    jcbmack says:

    I am still waiting on your thoughts. Technically we can feed the world, but economically and with warlords stealing supplies and politicians and corporate greed combined with inaccurate understanding of genetic modification we are held back, but in reference to global warming, dimming, and agricultural changes etc.. what are some of your ideas on how to deal with this issue, let us get out of the lab and the classroom and discuss what might actually work to counteract these ramifications of fossil fuel burning, not just lowering emissions.

  18. 118
    Mark says:

    Craig, #113. A bushland that was tree covered until humans turned up.

    Always nice to keep that in mind when people go on about how the natives live in harmony with nature. They have to since they stuffed it up big time when they arrived and now have the two options of live with nature or die.

    A bit like climate change and our production of CO2.

  19. 119
    Ray Ladbury says:

    jcbmack, If we had stated a couple of decades ago when climate scientists first started sounding the alarm about climate change–or even 8 years ago, we would have had much better mitigation options and a much better outcome. Transistion to renewable energy could have been much more gradual, solutions to transport needs, etc. could have been developed and most adverse effects of climate change might have been mitigated. Unfortunately, we are quite late in the game now, and good options are quite limited. I don’t think we will have the luxury of picking and choosing among mitigations: renewables, geoengineering, and probably nuclear power will all likely have to be brought into the equation. Geoengineering is particularly problematic, since it can make things worse if done poorly. What is more, while our understanding of climate makes the role of greenhouse gasses quite clear, most geoengineering strategies rely on aspects of the climate that are not as well understood–aerosols, clouds, uptake of CO2 by the biosphere and oceans, etc. Bottom line is we’ve squandered our most precious resource: time. And it will cost us dearly to try and buy back some of that lost time. We will have to somehow slow emissions of CO2 while we find other solutions, because if we get to the point where natural sources of CO2 and CH4 kick in the game’s over.

    Can we do it? I don’t know. Technically, I think it’s possible. However, I’m not sure whether human brains, which evolved to confront threats like leopards on African Savannah’s , are sufficiently flexible to comprehend a threat like climate change. Judging by some commenters here, they are not. When I want to be hopeful, though, I think about Albert Camus’ “The Plague”. Initially, when the plague strikes the town, people are in denial. Then they adopt an “every man for himself attitude”. Finally, they realize that their only path to survival is by working together to confront the threat. And they do. At great cost, to be sure, but they succeed. We’ll hope Camus was correct in his optimism.

  20. 120
    truth says:

    Jim Eager:
    What you say in your first paragraph is just plain , demonstrably not true—and I stand by everything I said.
    Yes, Australia is short of water, and has been for all of its existence, and especially now, due in large part to land use changes , and cotton-growing—-but manages to do quite well anyway.
    In your second paragraph, you deliberately misrepresent what I said, as anyone interested in truth can easily check.
    You would know that the palm oil plantations that replace the rainforests and peat lands in Indonesia, are in operation only to meet the demands from Europe for biofuels , in order to meet their Kyoto targets.
    In Brazil, the sugar cane from which ethanol is made, is being grown on lands from which cattle ranches have been displaced, those cattle producers then moving into cleared areas of what was formerly Amazon rainforest.

    [edit – no more personal remarks or insults]

  21. 121
    Andrew says:

    It is something of a shame if this site does not address the economics of global warming. There are legitimate peer reviewed studies on the subject, but they have found the social cost of carbon to be some where in the range of $10 to $350 per ton.

    About 50% of the electricity generated in the US is powered from Coal.
    The price of coal delivered to electric generating plants averages around $27 per ton.
    Fuel cost are about 80% of total generation expenses, so coal prices are roughly 40% of the typical electric generation bill. Assume $150 for the social cost of a ton of coal. This would mean that coal should cost $177 per ton and would result in the price of electricity rising to 322% of its current value. Ouch!

    A similar calculation could be performed for gasoline, which chemically is approximately C8H18. That works out to 92% carbon. Gasoline density is about 6 lb/gallon. So, a gallon has 5.6 lbs or carbon and the carbon tax should be $0.42 per gallon. Not too bad.

  22. 122

    #106 & “Maybe some AGW proponents did warn about the problem with biodiesel, but they must have been very timid and muted.”

    I’ve been saying from the very first time I heard about biofuels some 10 years ago this is going to come down to taking food away from starving people….so we can drive our SUVs in profligate fashion.

    Just finished my anthro course with the 40% poorest in the world get 5% of world product, while the richest 20% (that’s us) get 75%. To some extent this is interconnected — our wealth is at the expense of their poverty. Plus it’s those 40% poorest who are suffering the most and going to suffer extremely from global warming.

    You know the dictum about the rich man, the eye of the needle, and the camel; I’m thinking by today’s standards it would be the average American, the eye of the needle, and the elephant.

  23. 123
    William says:

    RE Craig #113
    I’m suggesting nuclear because James Hansen suggests nuclear when he stated: “If power plants are to achieve the goals of the alternative scenario, construction of new coal-fired power plants should be delayed until the technology needed to capture and sequester their CO2 emissions is available. In the interim, new electricity requirements should be met by the use of renewable energies such as wind power as well as by nuclear power and other sources that do not produce CO2.” From a review of Al Gore’s and other books at NY Review of Books July 13 2006.

    My suggestion would be to construct Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, a much safer design than the current Nuke plants in use.

  24. 124
    Jan Witkowski says:

    # 28
    Lynn Vincentnathan Says:

    >Watson and Crick — I remember reading something about them in Newsweek a few years back, about
    >how it was actually a woman scientist who made the discovery, and they stole the idea from her.

    This is incorrect. I refer you to:

    Brenda Maddox: “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA”
    Maurice Wilkins’ autobiography: “The Third Man of the Double Helix”

    (Statement of “conflict of interest” – I work with Watson.)

  25. 125
    Jim Eager says:

    Re “truth @120: “What you say in your first paragraph is just plain , demonstrably not true—and I stand by everything I said.”

    You can stand by what ever you like. Perhaps “skeptics” do now get short shrift in Australian media–bravo if they do, I don’t know as I only occasionally read Australian sources, but it is demonstrably not true in the US, Canadian and UK sources that I do read regularly.

    “You would know that the palm oil plantations that replace the rainforests and peat lands in Indonesia, are in operation only to meet the demands from Europe for biofuels , in order to meet their Kyoto targets.”

    Indeed, I do know, which is exactly why any clear-thinking person, AGW realists included, opposed the wholesale rush to biofuels from the outset. But I must point out that plantation-grown palm oil is not just used in biofuel schemes, but also as a cheap hydrogenated vegetable oil in industrial-scale food processing and animal feeds.

  26. 126
    Hank Roberts says:

    “Maybe some … did warn about the problem with biodiesel, but they must have been very timid and muted.”

    You want people to pound on your door and yell and wake you up?

    Results … about 952 for +biodiesel +ecological +risk +damage

  27. 127
    B Buckner says:

    Lynn #122

    The US generates and earns its wealth. A poorer US would not help the the lower 40%, in fact they would suffer more in a poorer world. The poor countries are poor because they lack properly functioning governments, courts and other systems necessary to flourish. Every human being has the ability to produce and thrive if placed in an enabling environment.

  28. 128
    SecularAnimist says:

    William wrote: “… other than going on a crash program of building Nuclear Power plants I don’t see any solutions in the 10-20 year time frame. Anyone have some realistic solutions?”

    A “crash program of building Nuclear Power plants” is not a “realistic solution” to the energy / climate problem. Expanding nuclear power is the most expensive, least effective way to reduce GHG emissions from electricity generation. In particular, it is simply not possible to build enough nuclear power plants and bring them online fast enough to have a significant impact on GHG emissions within the time frame that reductions are needed.

    Investments in efficiency improvements, wind, solar and geothermal generation, and a new-generation “smart grid” can provide greater reductions in GHG emissions, faster and cheaper than nuclear. Every dollar spent on building more nuclear is a dollar wasted — since it would have been much more effective if spent elsewhere.

    The USA has vast commercially-exploitable wind and solar energy resources — more than enough to provide all the electricity we currently use, and more. The offshore wind energy resources of the northeast alone are sufficient to provide all the electricity the entire country uses. The wind energy resources of a few midwestern states alone are sufficient to provide all the electricity the entire country uses. The solar energy resources of the southwestern deserts alone are sufficient to provide all the electricity the entire country uses. And distributed solar photovoltaics, deployed on houses, factories, office buildings, parking lots, etc. could generate locally most of the electricity consumed during peak demand periods (i.e. daytime in summer).

    Al Gore’s proposal for the USA to generate 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free, mostly clean renewable energy sources (he proposes retaining the existing nuclear and hydro power plants but not building more) within ten years is entirely achievable. It isn’t even that hard. The obstacles are not technological or economic. The obstacles are political: the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industries.

  29. 129
    Mark says:

    William, if we halve our energy needs now, it has an effect NOW. Not 15 years down the road. With that reduction NOW, we get time NOW to do the other things that need doing long term. But, whatever we do long term, the energy reductions we do NOW will continue to have their effect (and more so, since we won’t need to build potentially redundant structures) into the future.

    And do you want to change your dependence on the middle east powers to a dependence on the mid african powers?

  30. 130
    Hank Roberts says:

    B. Buckner, “generates and earns … wealth” within constraints increasingly well understood and recognized by all but a few economists these days.

    These will help:

  31. 131
    jcbmack says:

    Thank you for your response Ray, I just hope it does not end up like another Camus book where a priest goes to Africa and loses his way from pure idyllic good to complete consumption of evil.

  32. 132
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Personally, I think that the search for alternative hypotheses has received short shrift.

    Personally, I think that the search for alternative hypotheses has received far longer shrift than it deserves.

    Nobody that I know of disputes the basic physics anymore. The calculated energy due to the increase in GHGs is sufficient to have caused the observed increase in temps. Exactly what else are these other hypotheses expected to do? It’s always seemed to me that if there were some mysterious other source of energy sufficient to raise temps by the observed amount that there’d have to be an equally mysterious “trap door” which has vamoosed the energy trapped due to the increase in GHGs. That energy exists, after all. At some point, genuine skeptics would bow to Occams’s Razor, fold their tents, and call it a day.

    reCapthca: directing Finally

  33. 133
    David B. Benson says:

    truth (120) — Actually, the palm oil in Indonesia is almost all going to foods, so much so that many of the biodiesel producers there are in receivership. As for Amazon ranchers, I think you are just repeating an ‘urban legend’, (which I may have inadvertently started). AFAIK, the new sugarcane lands in Brazil are in the northeast which I think had almost no cattle ranches. If you find an authoritative report whiich states otherwise, please do let me know.

    Lynn Vincentnathan (122) — A recent FAO report states that of the 5 billion hectares of ‘agricultural lands’, about 30% are ‘arable lands’, which I take to mean in production. Another about 20% are unused. The latter means there is plenty of land available for growing biofuel feedstacks; indeed, some of these lands in Africa are already starting to come in production for that purpose.

    There is planty of food in the world; the problem, as you note, is one of equitable distribution.

  34. 134
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Some grim news today from Poznan:

    Fifth of world’s corals already dead, say experts

    POZNAN, Poland (AFP) – Almost a fifth of the planet’s coral reefs have died and carbon emissions are largely to blame, according to an NGO study released Wednesday. …

  35. 135
    Jim Galasyn says:

    David B. Benson: “there is plenty of land available for growing biofuel feedstacks.”

    This contradicts what I’ve seen from UNEP:

    – 1.9 billion hectares of arable land are degraded.
    – 65% (500 million hectares) of African land is degraded.
    – Arable land loss is 30-35 times the historical rate.
    – Loss is equal to 20 million tons of grain per year.
    – 70 percent of the 5.2 billion hectares of drylands used for agriculture are already degraded and threatened by desertification.

  36. 136
    Mark says:

    Jim, 135, I think that, if PROPER materials are used for biofuel, then there IS plenty of land for growing it.

    Plant weeds like hemp. Don’t bother watering them or looking after them. Just cut them up when available. There’s plenty of land spare for THAT. The problems become the large-scale commercialization of such land: they tend not to be easy to get to and hard to use machinery on. But for the same reasons, they aren’t being used for agriculture at the moment.

    So both of you are right. There’s a lot of *useful* arable land disappearing but that isn’t necessarily depleting biofuel (weed growing) land and such land isn’t necessarily available for agriculture either. Unless we raise more goats to turn the very marginal land into meat and milk.

    And degraded land is often over-farmed land which is farmed in the style of the western world, unsuitable for the land use that is sustainable in the African sub continent. But growing weeds doesn’t do this, if the right weeds are used (hemp again).

  37. 137
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Galasyn (135) — Mark in comment #136 has the right of it. While I know of no projects being started growing hemp, I do know of projects in Africa on degraded soils using other low-need plants such as Jatopha and even sweet potatoes and cassava. The latter two are, of course, foods. Still, these are not preferred foods, the ones being grown on better soils. If the preferred foods prosper, the tubers can be sold to biofuel manufacturers; if the food crop doesn’t do so well the tubers can supplement.

    The main issues I see are fair returns to the farmers and developing infrastructure; water, yes, about also roads and schools, etc. Of course, try to improve all topsoils; we’ll need it all.

  38. 138
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    I think the take-home message of this post is how science moves along in the real world.

    The idea that scientific progress is usually the creation of the lone underdog fighting the establishment is inaccurate. It is emotionally appealing and that is why the climate contrarians like to use it. It is straight out of the Luntz playbook.

    Anyone living in or planning to visit the NYC area the American Museum of Natural History has a great climate change exhibit. Gavin has a part in the short films in the exhibit. Seeing the AMNH and the exhibit is a good way to spend an afternoon.

    Recaptcha “tobacco issues”

  39. 139
    jcbmack says:

    Gibbs certainly has a lot of answers from the stil quiet no one thought of, but you make a solid point Joseph, even Darwin and Einstein worked on the reseacrh and thoughts of others… watson and crick were not considered special or intelligent in the scientific community and they stole others work, but so did Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Thomas edison, they all rely upon others. Gibbs I have to say was a bit unique though.

  40. 140
    jcbmack says:

    In central Africa they were using high powered DC lines which nowadays are very effective, I believe they tore them down, it is a shame, they should spread to western, southern and northern africa as the energy efficiency is enormous… then again they are still fighting agaisnt malaria and HIV-2, a shame really as they become the new unchartered territory for telecommunications to be industrilaized.

  41. 141

    RE #127 & “The US generates and earns its wealth. A poorer US would not help the the lower 40%, in fact they would suffer more in a poorer world. The poor countries are poor because they lack properly functioning governments, courts and other systems necessary to flourish. Every human being has the ability to produce and thrive if placed in an enabling environment.”

    You have no idea where the resources & products that we consume come from (I’m not even aware of the complete story). But I can say from what I’ve learned that a large portion of these don’t come from here in the U.S.

    There are many examples of how multinational corps & our lust for stuff grossly harms the poor of the world, for instance by taking away & harming their subsistence lands. And it is adding insult to injury that our GHG emissions are causing them further harm, and will being doing so into the far future.

  42. 142

    RE #135 thru 137. There is a tree, MORINGA, that grows about 20-30′ in a couple of years, straight up, in bad soil (drought or swampy conditions), and produces food (leaves, drumstick pods) and materials (seeds & cellulose) that can be used as food (side dish), herbal supplement, fodder (increases milk production by 30%), and (I think) biofuel.

    If anyone knows more about this, let me know thru

    We have them growing like weeds in our back yard. We had a killing frost some 4 yrs ago, and they died down, then popped back up again. They grow from cuttings, and we’ve filled up our yard. We left a few leaning against the fence months ago, and they’re still alive growing leaves and branches, tho we didn’t even plant them.

    To learn more about this miracle tree you can see the PowerPoint in the right column at

  43. 143
    David B. Benson says:

    Lynn Vincentnathan (142) — Thanks for the info.

    Any biomass, wet or dry, can be used one way or another to produce biofuel. Which process is used is a matter of efficiency and whether gaseous, liquid or solid biofuels are desired, or rather in what proportion.

  44. 144
    Jeff Chambers says:

    they’re back with the Senate minority “report” — actually just Inhofe’s blog — will it have any traction in the media, etc.?

  45. 145
    Hank Roberts says:

    Lynn, check the neighbors’ yards for that tree; it’s listed as a concern on various invasive plant sites.

    ReCaptcha likes it though: “Tenn., ferments”

  46. 146
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Mark and David: Fair ’nuff.

  47. 147
    Ricki (Australia) says:

    Can I suggest a page with links to basic data? It takes some time to find the basic historical trend data for things like mean sea level rise, global temperature, etc.

  48. 148
    matt says:

    My carbon footprint is approximately one ton per year — I pay $12 for my offsets from NativeEnergy.

    Unfortunately, you are on the hook for a heck of a lot more than that. For example, a family of 4 uses about 12 KHW of electricity at their home. Yet their per-capita consumption is almost 50 KHW per year. The family could reduce their consumption to zero, and they still are on the hook for 38 KWH per year. That’s because the hotels in Las Vegas are pumping water in the desert 24x7x365 for guest’s viewing pleasure on your behalf. Your employer is heating/cooling your office nearly the entire day anticipating you might show up to do a bit of work. Your local super market is lighting its store 24×7 so if you need some cough syrup at 2 AM it’s there.

    Are you 100% at peace with how many miles of airtravel your employer is responsible for each year as their salespeople scour the globe looking for another sale of an operating system that is already everywhere? Do you ever consider how many TWH of electricity are needed because your employer embraced x86 instead of ARM? You are a partial owner of all those decisions when you pick your employer.

    And keep in mind that offsetting a year of Hummer driving is only $85. Please let’s not pretend that offsetting makes us good. It’s simply a way for those with $ to make themselves feel better.

  49. 149
    Ricki (Australia) says:

    Suggest you review this paper:

    It is very worrying.

  50. 150
    John Philip says:

    Jeff C

    So far it seems only Mr Watts’ blog has picked it up, so the answer is ‘No’ ;-)

    You probably have to be UK-based to fully understand the depth of the desperation that is illustrated by the fact that to get his numbers up Mr Morano had to loosen the definition of a ‘prominent and sceptical scientist’ to the point that it includes Alan Titchmarsh. :-0