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The gentle art of blaming

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 23 December 2020

I rely on Judith Curry of Climate Etc to alert me to useful and provocative essays, articles and books, and she recently wrote a new essay herself, which you can read here. I think that the core element of her essay is the proposition that blaming gets in the way of doing anything sensible about whatever the problem is thought to be. Or, putting it another way, that the goal of the blamers is the immediate punishment of the offenders, not searching for a solution to the imagined problem. She uses material from the pandemic to try to find what is happening in the domain of climate change.

Inasmuch as manmade climate change is a problem, who is responsible for it? We might note at once that defenders of fossil fuels have extolled the benefits that "the development of coal, oil, and natural gas have had on mankind, including improved health, increased lifespan, and expansion of material welfare". Richard Tol, an economist with a deep interest in energy issues, has shown the private benefit of carbon is much greater than the social cost of carbon. The benefits come from fossil fuels and their provision of abundant and reliable energy.

Well, you ask, who are the ones to blame for the social costs? You could start with consumers (us) and industries who want cheap electric power, the industries providing grids and the engines using coal and other fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal companies, and governments which have the authority to regulate fossil fuel emissions. To identify who is responsible we need a causal link between the problem-maker and the harm caused, the ability to foresee the harm and the ability to prevent it.


Recent developments in attribution science are seeking to identify the culpability of individual or groups of oil/gas and coal companies as related to local sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather events.

I had not previously heard of 'attribution science'. Work by Richard Heede suggests that nearly two-thirds of anthropogenic carbon emissions originate from just ninety companies and government-run industries. The top eight such companies account for twenty per cent of emissions.

So there you have the villains, so to speak, but there is no evidence here to show that these emitters are responsible for specific and alleged climate-related impacts and events, like sea-level rise or 'ocean acidification'. Dr Curry warns that:

'he science of attribution, or causality, is not at all straightforward. There are two specific issues here: whether climate models are valid sources of legal evidence for climate change attribution/cause; and also the importance of determining partial causation in the context of natural climate variability.

All this is complicated by the existence of multiple causes, and by the sheer weight of existing infrastructure. We do not have choice, as consumers, in how we get to work, for example. We do not really care how the electricity we use to move the planes and light our homes is generated, other than it is abundant, reliable, safe and economical. Likewise, if there is an efficient tram service close to us, it makes little sense to avoid using it on the ground that most of its power comes from coal and gas.

What does the pandemic tell us about these issues? The apparent and imminent arrival of vaccines suggests that the cure here has been technological, not in world-wide behavioural change, though behavioural change has worked in some places on a small scale. The search in climate science for a global attack on emissions has not worked, and appears unlikely to work. Dr Curry suggests that the cure in climate change, if one is needed, rests on problem-solving and new technologies, not in searching for villains and punishing them. We are all too involved in the use of fossil fuels for punishment to make good sense. Indeed,


The fact that there is continued and growing demand for fossil fuels indicates that the issue of blame is not straightforward. A change from fossil fuels to cleaner fuels is not simple or cheap, owing to infrastructure. For electric power, this includes generation and transmission infrastructure. For transportation, this includes vehicle engines and their manufacture plus refueling infrastructure.

So putting the blame on big corporations, let alone on us the consumers, is not going to solve anything. Progress requires a focus on infrastructure, but where does that get us? It all depends on available and planned technologies, economics and public policy. In the case of Covid-19 a technological solution was always available, if not immediately, and the required elements of economics and public policy were there. To shift to climate policy:

A technological solution (analogous to development of the vaccine) in terms of better electricity generation and transmission would quickly silence the climate 'blame game' by solving the problems to the environment caused by burning fossil fuels. Suffering from insufficient electric power or electric power that is too expensive or unreliable (analogous to the Covid lockdowns) is economically damaging and politically unviable.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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