What is the Law of Unintended Consequences (LoUC) and why should we study its ramifications? Because, in a nutshell, its habit of sneaking up behind those who seek to control varied aspects of our lives, and biting them on the arse, impacts us, the people, more than it does them.
Wikipedia (not my favourite source) does cover this quite well.
In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action. The concept has long existed but was named and popularised in the 20th century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton
Possible causes of unintended consequences include the world’s inherent complexity (parts of a system responding to changes in the environment), perverse incentives, human stupidity, self-deception, failure to account for human nature or other cognitive or emotional biases. As a sub-component of complexity (in the scientific sense), the chaotic nature of the universe—and especially its quality of having small, apparently insignificant changes with far-reaching effects (e.g., the butterfly effect)—applies.
Robert K. Merton listed five possible causes of unanticipated consequences in 1936:
- Ignorance (It is impossible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis)
- Error (Incorrect analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation)
- Immediate interest, which may override long-term interests
- Basic values may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable (these long-term consequences may eventually cause changes in basic values)
- Self-defeating prophecy (Fear of some consequence drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is not anticipated.)
No doubt you can see where I’m heading with this.
Examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences (LoUC) in action are endless (pop the phrase into a Search Engine, settle down with a cup of coffee and. . . ) but as this site is about the control of carbon dioxide that’s what I’ll focus on. Well, one aspect of it, initially.
For years, coal has been one of the key drivers of industrial growth. Going back as far as 300-years BC its use was recorded in metalworking. Due to the fact it has a high energy density, compared to wood, it has obvious benefits that mankind has taken advantage of over the years.
Now, I would be the last person to claim a desire to work down a mine and the history of mine-owners’ exploitation of their workers leaves the average person wondering at the callousness of their disregard for safety etc. But this, in its own right, is a classic example of the LoUC; conditions in the mines led to the growth of unionised power and thus forced mine owners to address poor working conditions. Due to the dependence on coal, for many aspects of industry, transportation and power generation, the miners achieved, via the unions, a stranglehold over UK Government policy until the 1980s.
One of the outcomes of the fight against the miners was a large contraction in the mining industry. Many coal-fired power stations were sited close to the pit heads, thus reducing the emissions and disruption caused by transporting tonnes of it to where it was needed. As coal extraction reduced, more power generation switched to gas. The UK was fortunate that the North Sea oil/gas fields were able to take up some of the slack (pun intended). It also resulted in the shelving of the Selby deep coal mine which is having an impact even today, as we will see.
So now we are in a position where the powers-that-be want us to cut emissions of a trace gas that has, in effect, been found guilty before the case has been proven. The EU’s various bits of regulation have resulted in the owners of coal-fired generation taking one look at their business case and deciding to stop fighting a losing battle and, instead, jump on the subsidy band wagon and try and make some money again. Which neatly brings us back to the LoUC which the environmental lobby would do well to study.
Focusing on Drax highlights the hypocrisy endemic in the green position regarding power generation.
Claiming to be the largest, cleanest and most efficient coal-fired power station in the UK, the 4,000MW Drax plant supplies around 7% of the UK’s electricity needs. Drax is located in Selby, Yorkshire (UK), and is owned by Drax Power Limited (the operating subsidiary of Drax Group).
Here we had what was generally regarded as a highly-efficient example of the kind of installation that helped drive the UK economy for many years. If the planned development of the Selby coal mine had gone ahead, most of its fuel would have been extracted on its own door step.
- Strike 1 for the LoUC; militant miners force a democratic government to curb the union’s undemocratic activities; said government then cancels Selby coal field investment that would have, long term, assisted both the mining community and the population as a whole
Lady Thatcher had little choice at the time, as no one, old enough to remember, would dispute (we know who would dispute it, but they were the problem anyway). It has been suggested that the burgeoning ‘Global Warming’ scare gave her an excuse to reduce the UK’s ‘carbon’ emissions and hitting the mining industry carried some brownie points in that regard. Even without a concern for global temperatures, the control of the Nation’s economy had to be wrested back from the militant trade unions and their camp followers. She certainly came to the realisation, in due course, that there was a great deal more to the politics behind the hype than any substantial scientific justification.
But, of course, by then the damage was done. Along with the creeping, insidious influence of the ‘green’ lobby, in Europe and the UK, turning the clock back simply wasn’t an option.
Due to its size and importance to the British power generation landscape (i.e. our ability to keep the lights on and industry working), Drax is a great example of ‘green’ confusion.
- Drax power plant is no greener than the coal it burns – Drax still burns a staggering 30,000 tonnes of coal a day. Instead of getting it from down the road, though, it gets at least half from South Africa and from Kuznetsk in south-west Siberia. If anything symbolises Britain’s contribution to global warming, it is Drax. If anything would symbolise a serious greening of British energy production, it would be a change of fuel at Drax. – 25 February 2010
- Biomass schemes will boost destructive timber imports, claims wood industry – Wildlife and environmental groups are also alarmed that the new biomass schemes could trigger a huge escalation in wood imports and threaten rainforests: Friends of the Earth says it is also concerned about the large-scale imports of biomass wood from overseas which would be “impossible” to control and could create terrible damage through deforestation in the developing world. – 11 September 2011
Am I the only one that sees the irony here? One of the great benefits of the Internet is the ability to access, easily, these articles that shows the LoUC in action. On one hand we have one bunch of ‘greens’ demanding Drax stops burning coal and on the other we have another bunch of ‘greens’ wailing at deforestation and transport emissions. Only in a world driven by ideology, rather than economic and scientific rectitude, could this happen.
- Strike 2 for the LoUC; militant ‘greens’ enforce a ‘low-carbon’ mandate on one of the Nation’s key infrastructure installations; militant ‘greens’ suddenly wake up and find that maybe the cure is worse than the illness
The other side of this continual condemnation of ‘carbon’ and CO2 is the failure to exploit our own vast resources of coal. It is estimated that the UK has around 200-300 years of recoverable coal just laying there waiting for extraction;
Economically recoverable coal reserves for existing deep mines and opencast sites in Britain are estimated to be around 400 million tonnes.
However, the total potential British coal reserves are much larger. The Coal Authority, the body responsible for directing the British coal industry, has indicated that in 2005 coal resources at existing deep mines and existing, planned and known potential surface-mining sites were in the order of 900 million tonnes, with approximately one-third in deep mines and two-thirds at surface-mining sites.
Additional recoverable tonnages considered to be potentially available from new or expanded deep-mining operations amounted to almost 1.4 billion tonnes!!
- World coal statistics – UK electricity generation; Coal is a major energy source within the UK, accounting for around 40% of our electricity. Coal-fired power stations provide security and diversity of supply. They are also able to quickly respond to peaks in demand on the electricity grid. Coal ensures the National Grid is able to meet fluctuations in electricity demand and help to keep the lights on.
- WELCOME TO THE COAL AUTHORITY – We work to protect the public and the environment in coal mining areas. We manage the effects of past coal mining in order to promote public safety and safeguard the landscape – now and for future generations.
The collapse of our own mining industry has had some other knock-on effects, that rarely make the headlines. One of them is the sort of thing the ‘greens’ would rather you ignore, as it makes a nonsense out their campaigning. This perpetual fight against ‘carbon’ has resulted in the UK importing ever-increasing amounts of coal; ~ 48 million tonnes (2012) out of a UK consumption of ~ 64 million tonnes. Yeah, that makes sense, doesn’t it?
The other is its impact on Heritage Railways. Hardly world shattering, in the great scheme of things, but to the people involved and those who enjoy the experience it is just as important.
- Coal shortage hits Vintage Trains and Severn Valley Railway – A heritage steam train service could be under threat unless its operator can find a reliable source of coal.
- Heritage hit by coal shortage? – The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway is a popular destination for tourists eager to navigate the track to the Bronte homeland by steam, but there are fears the potential coal shortage, posed by the collapse of Scottish Coal and a large fire in a Warwickshire mine, could impact on heritage lines such as this.
Heritage steam locomotives do require a specific type of coal but how much better for everyone if supplies could came from UK pits.
So, back to Robert K. Merton’s list. How many of those points do you think apply to our current, needless, fixation with carbon dioxide? To my mind, all of them but one certainly stands head and shoulders above them all;
Self-defeating prophecy (Fear of some consequence drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is not anticipated.)