The Earth Hour – From light to darkness.

This afternoon, I received quite a few emails about the “Earth Hour”. Mostly forwards from friends and relatives and corporations such as HSBC, asking me to pledge my support for this cause. The text in one of the e-mails ran thus:

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: <xyz@pqr.com> [Edit: e-mail address of the sender is not made public]
Date: Fri, Mar 26, 2010 at 12:18 PM
Subject: FW: Join the ‘Earth Hour’- Saturday, March 27, 2010 8.30 PM – 9.30 PM
To:

This Saturday, the symbols of our civilization, iconic buildings and landmarks from India to Australia to America, will stand in darkness, to help bring to light one of the biggest challenges of our generation– Climate Change.

The ‘Earth Hour’ that began as a show of solidarity against climate change has today become a global movement. It brings together a whole generation of humankind, from across the world and across all walks of life, in celebration and contemplation of the one thing we all have in common – our planet. It is a call to stand up, to take responsibility, to get involved and lead the way towards a sustainable future.

Join the ‘Earth Hour’ by switching off all lights this Saturday (March 27th)  – 8.30 PM – 9.30 PM. Just for one hour.

To know more and to pledge your support, log on to www.earthhour.in

I usually don’t reply to or forward such mails. They meet their end in my trash-folder. In this case however, I found the contents of the e-mails mildly disturbing. And I thought that they deserved to be looked into more seriously.

Let me admit that I am a climate change skeptic. Climate-Change science, as I understand it, deals with modelling the future trends in climate based on the past trends in the indicators such as the temperature. The success of a such a predictive model depends on two things:

  1. A input data-set with a high degree of accuracy that consists of all the possible factors that can affect the phenomenon that we are trying to predict.
  2. The manner in which the data-set is interpreted to predict the future trends.

Now, it appears that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.  However, we have mostly accurate data on indicators such as temperature for only the last few hundred years or so. This is the period after the invention of thermometer. The rest of the past-data is calculated based proxy studies such as tree-rings, isotopes in ice and other indicators of relative temperature. So, first of all, we have accurate data for only a very tiny portion of time compared to the earth’s age. The accuracy of rest of the past-data is bound by the accuracy of the proxy studies. It might be good. But is it good enough ?

Next thing we have to look at the accuracy of the predictive algorithm itself. Now, if we have made the predictions, we will have to wait and see how accurate our predictions are. For example, if I want to predict the trend for five years from now, I use the previous data, make the predictions, and after five years I check how accurate my prediction was. This would help me improve my model by forcing me to look at the factors that I need to consider to make it more accurate. Hence, this whole process takes quite a bit of time before we can say with some degree of confidence “This is what the future would look like”.  In other words, the science has not yet matured.

Hence, till it matures, it’s a matter of faith, or opinion on how good a given model is and how seriously it’s predictions must be taken while making environmental policy decisions.

Since this science is not so perfect yet, it’s easy for the various lobbies to selectively quotes findings from this research area to buttress their cause when it comes to arguing the environmental policies. It is also possible for the lobbies to see if they can influence the scientists working in the area to selectively publish data in favour of their cause. The recent Climate-gate scandal brought home the fact that  researchers had been reluctant to share the data for independent verification by other researchers. The scandal involving IPCC’s report on Himalayan Glaciers highlighted how lax the review process was in this particular area of research. Incidents such as these and the existence of well argued opinions opposing the findings of climate change proponents is what makes me skeptical in my attitude towards Climate-Change science in the way it is currently being pursued.

Now one might argue, “But aren’t you observing the rising temperatures, the change in season patterns ? How can you deny that climate change is not happening.”. My answer would be, I am not denying that. But I am reluctant to jump to conclusions that the change that we are observing is solely due to human activities. That has not been proved. And secondly the camp is divided on the accuracy of the temperature data as well as  the accuracies in the modelling methods. So things aren’t settled yet. What we have been hearing so far are opinions. Not the truth. The truth stands independent of the majority opinion or “consensus” as it is called in the case of the Climate-Change debate. We’ve seen that happening once in the past where the majority opinion was that the earth was at the centre of the planetary system. And turned it, that was not the truth!

At the same time, I am of the opinion that diverse opinions must not be silenced. No. Until the truth emerges, all sorts of opinions have every right to exist. Opinions are the paths that seekers pursues while  proceeding towards truth. Sure, when the truth is found, the need for opinions ceases to exist. But until one cannot deny their need to exist.

Having said that, the problem, I believe comes when one of the factions tries to stop the flow of opinions. One of the popular way of doing this is by seeking consensus, where you consider everything to be settled beforehand which makes further enquiry unnecessary. There is however one major flaw in this method. If the truth is not the same as the consensus, then it’ll be discovered sooner or later. And we have to go all over the consensus process again. There are other ways of stemming the flow of opinions. Like enforcing bans, casting aspersions towards those who oppose your views and thus rendering their opinions irrelevant. Instances of all these methods being used to stop the flow of opinions has been seen in the Climate-Change debate.

Now, I do agree that we have to make people realize that the area of Climate-Change needs to be seriously looked into. More so, in the view of understanding the nature of our involvement in it. It’ll help us prioritize if Climate-Change is indeed the most important “global” problem that needs to be addressed immediately as most of the proponents would like us to believe. In the long run, solving this problem, if this is indeed a problem, would require us to discover alternate sources of energy and that’s not going to happen any time soon. In the short run, it would require us to cut down on the use of fossil fuels. This would have serious impact on the modern world that’s so dependent on energy for it’s growth. The impact will be felt more by developing countries such as India, whose march on the path of progress will be halted by laws which compel to limit our consumption of energy. And that will have another set of consequences thereby transferring the problem from one domain to another.

Given these facts we should be very careful in considering what causes do we want to pledge our support for.

Personally, I don’t think that “Earth Hour” campaign is going to have any serious impact. Most people, like most of my well intentioned friends who have forwarded me this email, won’t even consider it seriously beyond pressing that “forward” button and feeling happy about the fact that they did their bit for Climate-Change. The ones who will participate in the campaign, having stood in that one hour of darkness will come back and blog about it, or tell their friends about it and forget about the whole thing the next morning. Thus, there won’t be any significant take aways from participating in this “Stand in darkness to show the light” symbolism. Except of course, the moral high-ground that the people running the campaign are going to take.

On the other hand, If it’s a serious campaign, then I find it even more abominable because of the way it tries to educate people about Climate-Change. The message is loud and clear. “Act soon, else your future will be dark. Just like this.” This is the kind of doomsday mentality that I despise. People do all sorts of irrational things when they are made to feel that they will be judged on actions committed during a finite interval of time. They become desperate. We’ve seen this in the previous centuries and we continue to to see terrible things being committed in the hope of securing an eternal life in the “heaven” and avoiding the eternal “hell” based on the actions performed in one single lifetime spanning over a few tens of years. The Earth-Hour tries to latch on to that emotional part of us that urges us to drop everything else and act for the cause.

The sad thing is, in this exaggeration, what will be lost would be the genuine call to reflect on the problem, and help understand it better. In the end we would have only given up an hour of light to stand in darkness. To me, that’s coming a long way from “Tamaso maa Jyotirgamaya”.

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About gautshen

A jack of many trades of which , Linux Kernel Programming puts food on the table. Also pursuing his PhD in the area Theoretical Computer Science at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. Is an avid reader interested in the Hindu traditions and philosophy. Loves Bicycling and Good Music. Name is Ranjal Gautham Shenoy.
This entry was posted in academia, Rants, reflections and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Earth Hour – From light to darkness.

  1. Sandeep says:

    We Indians practice earth “hours” every day, thanks to power cuts 🙂
    I also read somewhere (I think Atanu’s blog) that we would need to start spending around 25 times the energy we are consuming today to be anywhere close to a developed country. I don’t think thats going to happen with alternate fuels like wind or solar as the technology is very expensive and still not so efficient.

  2. ego says:

    That’s the irony. We’re not fed up of the power cuts that we want to voluntarily impose “Earth hours”.

    And with regard to alternate fuels, yes, that’s where the research is required to discover ways to improve efficiency. In my opinion, the energy crisis is a much more pressing problem than the Climate Change.

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