When someone who has very different views from my own referenced Peter Huber’s “Hard Green” in support of some of those views, I thought I’d read it myself, in a spirit of open-mindedness.
I summarise here some of the things I found and my responses to them.
I was going to fact check various statements made by Huber in the book. But then I saw he made a massive disclaimer/admission to the effect that all and any things that he claimed were facts might not be things he can place a high degree of confidence in. To quote directly from his page 191:
“Any undue sense of confidence conveyed in my earlier chapters I hereby retract. I am not prepared to chop hands on the strength of any of my facts. Of that I am quite sure.”
There are a few particular aspects of his book worth debunking straight away (among many I could focus on in a similar way).
The first one is about computer modelling, the second one about the tragedy of the commons.
On computer modelling
On the one hand, Huber criticises the “complexity” of computerised climate models, as a reason in itself to place low confidence in their ability to provide meaningful results. But on the other hand, he places confidence in complex computerised models that ensure the safety of nuclear energy plant. But then he also tries to criticise all such complex computer modelling, without qualification, in other parts of the book.
From his page 53:
“… the machines that said nukes wouldn’t melt now say ice caps will.”
He seems to base his reasoning on some supposed immutable connection between people trusting in climate models (because they are computer models) and the same people also opposing nuclear energy on safety grounds (despite computer models saying the opposite). He seems to assume all AGW proponents oppose nuclear energy, which is far from the truth. In other parts of the book, he assumes that the two types of computer models are both either equally flawed or equally reliable because they are both complex computer models, or implies that this is what Soft Greens should believe. His text is full of so many aspersions that it's sometimes difficult to determine what are his own flawed beliefs or what flawed beliefs he is projecting onto the "Soft Green" group he so frequently vilifies.
He doesn’t seem to acknowledge or address this apparent deficiency, internal contradiction and logical fallacy in his line of reasoning. Instead, he uses it as an attempt to show inconsistency in the views of "Soft Greens" who are proponents of AGW but opponents of nuclear energy. In fact, all he shows is that his own logical reasoning is flawed through oversimplification.
On his page 39, Huber claims that:
Run backward in time, the global warming models cannot reproduce the trends of the last thirty years.”
This is debunked here:
where it is shown that climate models have been surprisingly good at reproducing the global temperature record of the past few decades, and they are getting better at it all the time.
On Tragedy of the Commons
Huber suggests that tragedy of the commons is caused by Government and solved by private ownership. He claims that Gareth Hardin ‘got it the wrong way round’, whereas, in fact, Huber cannot properly justify his reversal of the key features of the tragedy as recognised by a large body of research and practice.
The reality is that tragedy of the commons can occur under government ownership, private ownership or no ownership at all. What is missing when it happens is a set of management practices that limit and share out the rights to extract from the ‘common’ assets.
The solution to the tragedy is usually achieved through binding agreement among all those extracting from the asset to stick to aggregate extraction rules that are set to lie within ecologically sustainable limits. If those parties cannot agree, or do not abide by, the aggregate limits and extraction shares, then the next most likely solution is for those limits and shares to be calculated and policed by government on behalf of the people.
Private ownership (Huber’s preferred solution to the Tragedy) might or might not be effective at calculating and policing such limits. That depends on their fortitude in being committed to maintaining the assets sustainably in perpetuity. In the presence of strong market pressures, there might be strong financial incentives for private owners to either ignore the extraction limits or sell the assets to someone else who will ignore them. These financial pressures could apply to government owners as well, of course, but governments are held accountable by the people they represent, so are less likely to be swayed by short-term financial gains offered by markets, all other things being equal.
Perhaps Huber’s most worrying ideas are to do with humanity’s place and role (or lack of it) in stewardship of the earth and all its living species. Here, he takes the attitude that humanity has reached a level of superiority over the environment and over all other living things, and that it is the ‘natural way’ for things to develop with humanity having no responsibility to keep other species alive. He claims that ‘dispersal’ of the wastes we produce (including greenhouse gases) is, again, the natural way and that the environment will always absorb them, even if it is damaged in the process. Human technologies will come to our rescue (but not the rescue of other species). He suggests that high rates of species extinction might be an inevitable consequence of humanity’s dominance, and he cites as support for this the theories of evolution and natural selection (or as he refers to them, “survival of the fittest”). He goes further, saying that it could well be the case that humans eventually become the only surviving species on the planet, but he doesn’t seem to think that would necessarily be a bad or immoral state of affairs, except for the loss of the beauty of nature.
Of many claims Huber makes or perpetuates, one about recycling is noteworthy and easily debunked. From his page 20:
“… garbage dumps can mount a spirited defence of their greenish bona fides. … recycling newsprint, they charge, creates more water pollution than making new paper… we must weigh [these accounts] very carefully. They may be true.”
And on page 34:
“Recycling aluminium cans probably saves some net energy too, but recycling glass or newsprint almost certainly does not.
Huber provides no references or supporting evidence either way on recycling aluminium, glass or newsprint. However, later in the book (on page 115) he goes on to assume that recycling newsprint is bad for the environment:
“Composting food wastes and recycling newspapers are the last thing we should want to do: Both interrupt the return of carbon to the Earth.”
In fact, there is evidence that directly refutes the claim Huber suggests ‘may be true’ about newsprint.
A paper by Hong (2012) entitled “Environmental assessment of recycled printing and writing paper” says:
“Compared with the wood pulp scenario, printing and writing paper made from wastepaper represented environmental benefit on non-carcinogens, respiratory inorganics, global warming, and non-renewable energy categories.”
Re- glass, Gencer (2015) says, in “Mystery of Recycling: Glass and Aluminium Examples”:
“Recycled glass saves 50 percent energy versus virgin glass, and recycling just one glass container saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours. Recycled glass generates 20 percent less air pollution and 50 percent less water pollution, and one ton of glass made from 50 percent recycled materials saves 250 pounds of mining waste.”
“Aluminium cans are 100 percent recyclable and can also be recycled over and over again. Even better, turning recycled cans into new cans takes 95 percent less energy than making brand new ones.”
So, far from “weighing these accounts very carefully”, Huber has in fact not weighed them at all but has treated them in a very cavalier fashion, failing to prove them but instead drawing attention to them and disseminating them more widely via his book, potentially being part of perpetuating damaging urban myths. He does so without looking at any actual evidence he would care to cite, when evidence that is easily found directly contradicts his claims.
On his page 28-29, he uses two very well known AGW denial red herrings:
“Carbon dioxide levels have indeed risen about 20% in the last century, and they were only half as high 50,000 years ago, but they were almost as high as today 150,000 years ago. These things apparently do go up and down. Global temperatures cycle too… Carbon dioxide is a poison to us, but it is food to plants.”
These red herrings are debunked at:
An example of Huber’s faith in technological innovation to save the day is given on his page 68:
“Internal combustion engines, for example, might improve to the point where they beat mass transit, and if they do we will be sorry to have invested wastefully and destructively in things like roadbeds for trains.”
There are two main problems with his views on this.
The first is that no amount of efficiency improvement can eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions from internal combustion engines, whereas electrification of mass transit could eliminate them altogether if the electricity supply is transitioned to zero carbon.
The second is that there is no reason to believe that efficiency of mass transit will improve at any less pace than efficiency in internal combustion engines, even after mass transit is improved through electrification and decarbonisation.
Huber’s argument smacks of wishful thinking rather than rational analysis. As with other arguments he makes, he provides no evidence or references to support his views.
In one place (page 79) Huber makes both a logical fallacy and stereotyping mistake in one breath:
“Malthusian greens … by arguing so broadly that by harming nature man will inevitably harm himself … implicitly assert that nature was created for man’s own principal benefit.”
The logical fallacy is that it is possible for nature to have been created principally (or wholly) for the benefit of species other than humanity, but for humanity to gain some benefit from it that is decreased if nature is damaged.
Huber seems not to have thought of this possibility. If he did, he ignored it (which is worse). He not only makes the logical fallacy, but he also projects it onto a supposed group he calls “Malthusian greens”, whoever they are, thereby stereotyping some unclear group of people as a focus for his criticism.
On page 110, Huber makes, on the face of it, an extraordinary claim:
“All in all, North America doesn’t dump carbon dioxide into the air. It sucks the gas out. The bottom line: America’s “terrestrial uptake” runs … just ahead of [its] fossil fuel emissions.”
The use of the expression “all in all” is both untrue and misleading., as shown by the following excerpts from the 2019 US EPA report “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”
“The primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are:
So, although it is true (for 2019) to say that land use and forestry has been a net sink in an amount equivalent to 12 % of the USA’s GHG emissions, it is much less than the GHG emissions from fossil fuels, and less than a fifth of the overall GHG emissions amount.
A truer statement than Huber’s would be “all in all, on a territorial basis, the USA is a large GHG emitter, even after taking into account land use and forestry activities as a net sink.
This does not even take into consideration the USA’s consumption emissions …
In several places, Huber describes Jevons Paradox (aka “the rebound effect”), as a phenomenon that frustrates “soft greens” efforts to steer policies towards a sustainable future. He seems to suggest that it is an insurmountable problem, whereas in fact it is a well-known feature which can be overcome by sensible public environmental policies, rather than, as Huber suggests, less government and more market.
There are quite a few examples in the book, of Huber obliquely connecting “soft greens” and “central planners”, with references to the failings of soviet communism. From p122:
“[The Softs] hail from the political Left, and the Left’s instincts lean toward expanding the public sphere, not shrinking it. Softs of the Left believe in the commons, believe it does more good than harm. The Left declines to avert Hardin’s Tragedy by shrinking the commons itself. The Right remembers that Communists had nothing but common property and laid waste to it all.”
And from page 144 - 146:
“’Efficiency’ planners have been around a lot longer than Soft Greens. Socialism, recall, was “scientific”... Central planning invariably ends with huge bureaucracies …”
Here, we see a thinly veiled political ideology in Huber’s writing, rather than a rational argument based on the evidence of specific aspects of environmental management in the public and private spheres in the modern era. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that his views are tantamount to historical and backward-looking political dogma rather than reasoned research and open-mindedness about the rapidly changing modern world.
There is one subject I can agree with Huber on (one of very few) – that there needs to be more government action to increase the size of the world’s protected wild places. It is bizarre that, after all his ranting and raving about environmentalists, he agrees with most of them on this point.
Having said that, where Huber suggests this is the only thing governments should do in response to environmental challenges, his argument then falls down. It would clearly be insufficient because we also need to tackle the environmental damages (including to the wild places) caused by human activities in all the other areas of land, air and water on the planet.
In summary, Huber’s approach to environmental problems is ill-judged, ill-informed, illogical, inconsistent, insufficient and is riddled with false, misleading and dangerous statements. He puts too much emphasis on political ideologies and ignores completely the potential for real-world solutions based on pragmatic international cooperation between all nations of the world.
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.