Climate change driven IT spend: are we being hoodwinked?

One of the great things about being an Irregular is that every now and again, one of our motley band will toss a pebble into a pond which sends ripples. Last weekend Jeff Nolan, one of our founders and a great personal friend said this:I try not to post anything on climate change because I’m not qualified (like most people) to debate the scientific issues but also because I don’t relish getting shouted at by frantic commenters.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

One of the great things about being an Irregular is that every now and again, one of our motley band will toss a pebble into a pond which sends ripples. Last weekend Jeff Nolan, one of our founders and a great personal friend said this:

I try not to post anything on climate change because I’m not qualified (like most people) to debate the scientific issues but also because I don’t relish getting shouted at by frantic commenters. This recently published book [Climate Change Reconsidered - PDF] on the subject is fascinating and all 880 pages are available as a free download...

...Whatever side of the issue you are on, a reasoned debate dominated by facts rather than hyperbole and speculation should be viewed as a welcome development.

I then spent a day reading some of what is being said by NIPCC, the organization that challenges the CO2 theory of climate change, watched introductory videos from a conference on the topic held 2nd June and then watched two contrasting movies: The Great Global Warming Swindle and The Denial Machine. This is what I learned:

On one side of the debate CO2 emissions are causing global warming, that is generally bad and we need to do something about it. On the other side, CO2 is an effect, not a cause of global warming and that there is more likelihood that natural activity by the sun is causing climate change. The economic consequences are fundamentally different, depending on which side of the divide you choose to camp.

I was particularly taken by arguments in The Great Global Warming Swindle that this is a political issue with economic overtones that has washed out any real debate about the science involved in understanding what is happening to the planet's climate. Given what I have seen and especially the upsurge in attention paid to the topic by IT companies it makes sense to stand back and ask: are we being hoodwinked into spending on IT that will be fruitless? More to the point, why should I take this position when all around me say we urgently need  to spend on IT measures that will help bring change?

Time and again over the 30+ years that I've been involved in technology, buyers have been lulled into believing that 'the next big thing' would deliver some magic bullet or was required to avert some disaster and often at a cost that far outstrips the benefits. Think about ERP. Predicated on the idea that we could achieve extraordinary efficiencies, serious doubt has been expressed about whether ERP really delivered. Fifteen years after I first started studying ERP I see that Erick Kimberling of Panorama Consulting is asking questions about value delivered. Then we have Y2K.

In retrospect the principle reason put forward - that there would be a mass failure of equipment essential to our industrial well being coupled with possible loss of life - was little more than a fraud. At 00:01 1st January, 2000 nothing happened.

Here we are in 2009 during the worst economic recession in living memory and we now have a new god to worship - Green IT - with all the costs that go with it. My concern is that THIS time, spend will be an order of magnitude above anything we've seen in the past and that it MIGHT all be for nothing.

The problem for most of us is that the science on which we're encouraged to think green is, as Jeff points out, something very few of us truly understand. That means we have to take on faith that what we're being told is correct. As someone who studied philosophy as an undergraduate there is one thing I learned: all science fails. It does so because we don't have perfect understanding. In turn that means that what scientists tell us as being true is not necessarily immutable. It will almost always be capable of being proved false over time as fresh facts, evidence and discoveries are made. Studying the philosophy of science also taufght me that we have to be extremely careful when applying the scientific method and that we should be very clear about the assumptions and hypothesies we're making when advancing an argument.

On climate change there seems to be a much more fundamental problem. If you accept there is merit in the counter argument that the current period of change is natural and not attributable to CO2 then it brings into question the underpinning rationale behind everything we know about alternative energy and its application in IT.

This is not the place to have that debate as I don't claim any more understanding than any other lay person on the topic. Even so, this debate bears many of the characteristics of the Galilean debate about whether the sun revolves around the earth or otherwise. At that time, Galileo was ridiculed by powerful forces:

When he later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, he was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Recognize the parallels? In The Great Global Warming Swindle, one of the commenters notes that dissent to the 'green' view is treated as a modern form of heresy. And so it seems. Note the first comment to Jeff's post.

I totally agree with you that the discussion about an issue like climate change ought to be fact-based. But this piece (sponsored by the Heartland Institute) hardly qualifies.

And this is where things start to get incredibly dangerous. Check this post from Tom Raftery at Greenmonk where he asserts:

The planet and more importantly, all life on it has had 120m years to adapt to the 3 degree cooling which has occurred since then and we have adapted well. However, a rise of 3 degrees in less than 100 years would have catastrophic consequences for most plant and animal species on the planet who are designed to adapt to changes in geological timeframes, not generational ones.

Tom's a good friend and another Irregular but his comment is based upon the recent report by MIT on Climate Change which is making polemic predictions about climate change:

Specifically the peer-reviewed study projects a 90% probability range of a global warming of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees Celsius by 2100 with a median probability of surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius.

Here's the issue. Predictions are not the same thing as forecasts. Even short term weather forecasts are notoriously inaccurate so why should a prediction be any better? Case in point: it's supposed to be sunny today (Sunday) yet it is pouring down at a time of year when sunshine 'should' be highly predictable. Logic dictates that you must discount predictions of this kind in favor of empirical evidence. It is not a choice. Similarly, peer review is not the same as evidence. Peer review can have the effect of being little more than the modern day equivalent of the Catholic Church making poor old Galileo's life hell.

Tom then goes on to use the MIT argument as a lever to invoke change. But as we're discovering, the assumption that 'we' can do something about it through CO2 measures is far from clear, if you accept there is a debate to be had on the scientific merits of the two arguments. If you don't then it is game over. But there is more.

I remember a call when Tom told me that cattle cause more CO2 emissions than humans. Some scientists say the oceans release more CO2 than all other sources put together. If that's the case then would measures we take be effective in bringing climate changeg other than slaughtering an essential food supply? That is assuming the cause and effect argument is valid in the first place.

So what do we do?

The task of re-assessment is far from easy. A study by Deloitte on behalf of Barclays Bank about the materiality of sustainability issues to stakeholders showed the following:

According to Barclays [my emphasis added]

The 12 issues identified were selected based on Deloitte’s determination of the universe of issues of likely relevance to Barclays and the global banking sector. The focus of this work was on understanding the issues from stakeholders’ perspectives as reported in the media. These issues were all of greater interest and importance to some stakeholder groups than others.

We know that recent media reporting has been skewed firmly in favor of the green lobbyists. The net effect is that the economic impact is last on the list of things considered material. That could be based on a fallacy.

If our 'green' lobbyists were capable of seeing another side to the argument then we might be looking at this topic through a different lens. I accept for instance that fossil fuel resources are being depleted and that over time they will run out. That itself is subject to debate but the evidence I've seen suggests that is true. I can therefore accept that notion as having enough empirical evidence for me to at least think differently about energy usage.

That's an excellent argument for investing in alternatives. But it has nothing to do with climate change or CO2 emissions. It's also an excellent argument for reviewing how our data centers consume power, pushing forward with investments in smart grids and all that goes with it. It is to the green side of the house's credit that it has made us think hard about energy consumption and spawned ideas like Home Camp. But it is not necessarily a good argument for CO2 reductions.

If you take the alternative view that the lynchpin for alternative energy is not CO2 but an economic reality then we can have a very different discussion. I note for instance that in the full version of the Shai Agassi TED Talk video on electric driven vehicles, Shai makes the economic point over and over again to the pint of asserting that electric power will be cheaper than gas in around 10 years. Compelling stuff. It is only at the end that he pushes the morality button to hammer home his point. It is convenient and powerful and Tom extracts that piece to make his point that:

People need to watch the video above [Shai Agassi], grow a pair and act decisively on the problem. Enough of the half-measures.

Sorry Tom but that's propaganda. If you believe there is an alternative view worth debating or that the premise upon which climate change is popularly understood may be a falsehood.

IBM, SAP, HP and even Oracle all have positions on green IT. They are to be welcomed. What I am suggesting is that it should NOT be for the polemic climate change reasons put forward by some which can seem like FUD but for economic reasons based on depleting resources and the inevitable rise in costs that will bring. Let's at least understand what the alternative view means and test whether it has genuine merit without the attendant saber rattling.

If we look through that lens then we have time. We don't necessarily have to invest immediately as though Y2K was about to come again. Instead we can plan our way through the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years and really work through what will deliver the best outcomes for business.

There are plenty of things we are doing that are harmful to the environment. As James Farrar frequently and eloquently discusses, we are not good at acting in sustainable ways. But let's at least have a better understanding of what we're really looking at on this CO2 thing and then make IT investments accordingly. Let's not be frightened into making the wrong choices using science that could turn out to be bad.

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