Unimpressed with humanity

September 11, 2009

in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Wispy seeds

I am increasingly of the sense that humanity doesn’t have what it takes to deal with climate change. We are apparently lacking not only in scientific understanding, but also in empathy and skill in managing risk. We are easily overpowered by those who use weak arguments forcefully, and slow to rally to the defence of even the most well-established of scientific facts.

These comments strike me as an especially poignant example of muddled thinking. The basic message is: “Let’s not argue about what causes climate change, because that is contentious and conflict makes me uncomfortable. Instead, let’s agree to disagree about what’s happening, but begin cutting carbon emissions anyhow.” With such thin soup on offer from those who believe we should take action, it’s not too surprising that more and more people apparently see the climate threat as overblown. People put politeness ahead of rigorous thinking and rely far too much on simple heuristic crutches (past warnings about other things have proved exaggerated, technology will save us, etc). None of this suggests that people have the will and understanding necessary to build a zero-carbon global society in time to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Of course, there is extremely strong scientific evidence that greenhouse gas emissions cause the climate to warm, along with additional consequences like charged precipitation patterns and ocean acidity. Arguably, some of these effects are already rather serious, particularly in the Arctic. We are on track to raise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from about 383 parts per million (ppm) to over 1000 ppm by the end of the century. Decisive action is required, but politicians have correctly sensed that they are better off dithering: using rhetoric to convince the public at large that they are ‘balancing the environment and the economy‘ while privately kowtowing to special interests. These include both the old smoke-belchers (coal-fired electricity worst among them) and up-and-coming lobbies like corn ethanol producers. The politicians see quite clearly that their political futures do not depend on the habitability of the Earth in fifty years time, and they think and vote accordingly.

I certainly wouldn’t feel confident about having or raising children right now. The world continues to walk straight towards the edge of the precipice – ignoring the feedbacks and lag times that delay the impact of our emissions on the state of the climate – while patently failing to grasp the seriousness of our situation. If those alive and blogging now don’t live to see the worst consequences of that inaction, it seems highly likely that their children and grandchildren will start to, and that those consequences will be felt for thousands of years.

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{ 140 comments… read them below or add one }

. September 11, 2009 at 10:35 am
George Taylor September 11, 2009 at 11:55 am

Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it.

[screaming]

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

R.K. September 11, 2009 at 12:20 pm

It would be hard to design a threat better suited to wreck humanity than climate change:

1) It takes a long time for causes to become effects.

2) Even if you stop causing it yourself, you are vulnerable because of what others do.

3) It’s not clear that it can be stopped while prosperity continues to grow.

4) Aggressive or militarist states that ignore climate change may become more powerful than prudent states that take action.

5) By the time very serious consequences emerge, it may be too late to stop.

6) Taking appropriate action requires anticipating what will happen decades and even centuries in the future.

7) Powerful industries, lobbies, and individuals are opposed to the kinds of change that are needed.

8) The dynamics involved are outside the scope of ordinary human experience. As such, our instincts are often wrong.

Tristan September 11, 2009 at 12:38 pm

I had the same feeling last night when I was cleaning the kitchen floor. I got the strangest sense that I was cleaning a house just before it was to be torn down. Then I found a booklet in a drawer that was all gloom and doom about climate change, stressing the solution was “your personal choices”. Well, I’m sorry, but my personal choices aren’t going to make a hoot of difference – for democratic structures to work the opposition to climate change would need to look like the civil rights movement (a significant portion of society acting together against powerful interests), but instead what “movement” there is has been individuated and re-captured by corporate interests whose tendency is growth anyway.

. September 11, 2009 at 12:50 pm
Milan September 11, 2009 at 1:05 pm

How could such a movement realistically come into being, given the barriers described above?

With civil rights, there were clear benefits in the near term being sought. With climate change, the situation requires near-term sacrifice in exchange for future gains – the bulk of which will accrue to other people.

That’s why I said a lack of empathy is one of the key problems here.

Sarah September 11, 2009 at 1:30 pm

I think the civil rights analogy is unhelpful. None of the goals of the civil rights movement involved a serious increase of costs and loss of quality of life amongst the public as a whole, which if what tackling climate change seems to involve unless technological quick fixes emerge. The opposition to civil rights also took a largely political & legal form (remember Brown v Board of Education), whereas many of the opponents of tackling climate change seem to be concerned with economic self-interest – which is unfortunate given that economics is an incredibly influential argument amongst politicians because corporate interests have massive lobbying power, they can’t bat economic issues back to the courts, and they know that people vote largely based on their current economic situation (i.e. making people take short-term economic hits for a longer term gain just means you lose the next election).

Tristan September 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm

“and they know that people vote largely based on their current economic situation”

That’s why so many red states had much to benefit economically from Bush’s policies – right? If people voted based on their “current economic situation” we wouldn’t have a state run for the interests of elites.

I think it is ridiculous to blame “humanity” for the short-sighted situation we’re in. That takes the existing corporate legal structure to be “natural”, it takes our failed democratic structures to be “natural”.

The current world political arrangements have elements both of necessity and contingency. The difficult work is to tease out which is which. It’s the pessimists way out to blame “humanity” for the way things are.

magictofu September 11, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Wow, what an uplifing read! Is it really time to abandon hope and buy farm land in the North?

Tristan, don’t you think that “existing corporate legal structure ” are the result of our “humanity”?

Anon September 11, 2009 at 2:18 pm

It isn’t just humanity.

Take any living thing and put it in conditions where it has lots of resources and few predators. The population will explode until one of those two enabling conditions ceases to exist. At that point, it usually crashes.

The fact that humanity is following the same path illustrates one thing above all else: when it comes to the fates of living things, en masse, intelligence doesn’t count for much.

Sarah September 11, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Tristan, I didn’t say that people vote for the party whose policies will benefit them most, I said that people vote largely based on their CURRENT economic situation – whether or not they have a job on the day of the election, whether or not they fear losing their job on the day of the election, whether or not they feel as though their household is doing okay on the day of the election. Elections in recessions are likely to kick out incumbents and elections in booms are likely to re-elect incumbents. It isn’t the only motivator for voting, but as far as people who study voting can tell it is the most consistent and generally the most important. Politicians know this – hence “It’s the economy, stupid” – and it makes them very averse to do anything which will cause significant economic harm to their electorate, especially in the run-up to elections (if you’re going to impose a sudden economic hit it is tactically smarter to do it early in the term and then give them a cheque for a proportion of that hit right before election day).

Milan September 11, 2009 at 2:35 pm

As I argued before, democracy is more a way of constraining the behaviour of those in power than it is a way of getting those in power to do what people want them do. It is even less effective as a means of ensuring what ought to be done, for the long-term general interest, actually is.

Of course, there aren’t any other forms of political organization that have a better record on the last of those.

R.K. September 11, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Could the Cold War be a model for fighting climate change in democratic states?

The build-up of arms harmed the economic self-interest of most people (though the overall economy continued to grow). The consensus to keep building them was basically consistent regardless of the ideology of governments in power, and the effort was sustained for decades.

If people became fearful enough about climate change, a kind of zero-carbon infrastructure program might operate similarly.

Milan September 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Magictofu,

At this point, I am not at all confident that the world at large will act soon enough to avert catastrophic climate change.

The most likely scenario seems to be several more decades of inadequate action, followed by abrupt and unmistakeable climate change and last-ditch efforts to mitigate, adapt, and geoengineer.

The opening section of Joseph Romm’s Hell and High Water: Global Warming – the Solution and the Politics and What We Should Do are a convincing portrayal of what that might resemble.

Milan September 11, 2009 at 3:09 pm

R.K.,

While the Cold War is an interesting example, I think it is different from climate change in important ways.

While the US did spend a lot on weapons, there was also an explosion in consumer goods and welfare between 1945 and basically the present. For the most part, people were seeing their lifestyles improve, even though the state was spending a lot on weapons.

In this sense, the climate ‘Cold War’ might be more like the Cold War experience in the USSR, though I don’t know too much about that, from the perspective of ordinary people there.

The Cold War arms buildup also had the support of very powerful lobbies, throughout and beyond the military industrial complex. I don’t think such a constellation of interests exists now to drive mitigation efforts.

. September 11, 2009 at 3:29 pm

India says not a disaster if Copenhagen climate talks fail

NEW DELHI – India’s environment minister said the country will not agree to binding emission targets and that it would not be a disaster if global climate change talks in December fail.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said India could not compromise on its domestic commitments by agreeing to binding emissions cuts, which it has rejected on the grounds that they hamper economic growth.

“It is possible for us to identify quantifiable commitments that India voluntarily and unilaterally takes as part of its domestic political agenda,” Ramesh said. “The problem arises when you want to transplant these domestic commitments to binding international targets and I think that distance has to be bridged.”

But “if we don’t bridge it at Copenhagen now let’s not believe that the world will come to a halt,” Ramesh told a gathering of business leaders in the capital New Delhi.

Developing countries such as India and China say rich countries ought to shoulder the main responsibility for mitigating global warming as they have historically emitted most of the greenhouse gases at the root of the problem.

. September 11, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Economic growth tops cutting carbon emissions, South Africa says

CAPE TOWN – Coal-reliant South Africa on Thursday said it was unrealistic to expect developing nations to set targets for cutting harmful carbon emissions as this would hamper economic growth.

In the lead up to the crucial Copenhagen climate summit in December which hopes to thrash out a new climate treaty, Africa’s richest state said it is the responsibility of developed countries to reduce emissions.

“We think it is unrealistic for us at this stage to set targets. Setting targets now would definitely hamper growth. Developed nations in our view have a much greater responsibility of reducing their emissions,” government spokesman Themba Maseko told journalists after a cabinet meeting.

“They have contributed to emissions for longer than any of the developing nations and their economies have reached a certain level of growth which enable them to actually reduce their emissions, whereas developing nations such as ourselves have quite a lot of way to go in terms of growing our economy.”

South Africa relies heavily on coal for its energy requirements, and power giant Eskom is embarking on an ambitious project to build more power stations to fuel the country’s growing but energy-strapped economy.

Mark September 11, 2009 at 4:11 pm

I’ve been trying hard to think of a reasonable and constructive way to respond to this post. It’s difficult, because I share a lot of the assessment. R.K. says it best – climate change hits a failure mode of human problem solving. Our short-focus political system just makes it worse. But the consequences of throwing in the towel are too awful to contemplate.

If Tristan sees hope in public movements, I see hope in private conspiracy. People threw around the accusation recently that the pandemic threat was overblown by drugs companies. That’s great. The kind of conspiracy that increases our pandemic preparedness is exactly the kind of conspiracy we need.
It seems a few key policy changes by the right government officials could still change the game. Unfortunately Obama is spending his political capital on health. The nuclear industry doesn’t seem to have the necessary clout. The Silicon Valley cleantech boom, and VCs like John Doerr, are a promising development but Silicon Valley is famously poor at the Washington game. I just continue to hope that the private interests (and/or conscience) of enough well-connected people tip in the direction of fixing the problem. As the invasion of Iraq convinced me, there is a lot of randomness in these things, depending only on the whims of small numbers of people.
However, on the face of it calamity still seems more likely than not. Machiavelli put it pretty well 500 years ago, when he talked about how hard it is to initiate a new order of things.

So, Milan – what do you do with your assessment? Take magictofu’s advice and buy land in the Arctic?

Milan September 11, 2009 at 4:28 pm

I can see two ‘separate peace’ or ‘cut and run’ possibilities.

One is the survivalist option, focused on agricultural self-sufficiency. This involves huge sacrifices, since it is very different from how I would prefer to live. It also offers only modest security. You are still vulnerable to things like massive changes in weather patterns or forms of political organization.

Just look at the history of Zimbabwe or the USSR to see that self-sufficient farming communities are not always left alone by governments, especially radical ones.

The other is just ‘get as rich as you can’ and then hope you can outbid others when climate change starts to make things like food and water scarce.

Neither is really terribly appealing. That being said, when the prognosis from intelligent people is quite negative, we do need to start thinking about personal fallback plans – as well as at what point it makes sense to stop lobbying for the public good, and focus on what you can secure for yourself.

Milan September 11, 2009 at 4:30 pm

My friend Ryan Nassichuk is ramping up towards the subsistence agriculture option.

Perhaps I can get him to comment here.

Mark September 11, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Milan – are you serious about that? Those seem like very drastic responses to a threat which will probably have moderate impact in our lifetimes (that being part of the problem).

. September 11, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Can the Wealthy Have A Separate Peace?
Posted by Nate Hagens on August 22, 2009

Milan September 11, 2009 at 5:09 pm

We’re already decades ahead of schedule, when it comes to melting Arctic ice and what climate models predicted. It seems that there is at least a small chance of abrupt climate change within the next 50 years or so.

All this is admittedly less of an issue for those who don’t plan to reproduce. But for those who want to have children (and for those children to have decent lives), planning of this sort seems prudent to me.

Tristan September 11, 2009 at 5:16 pm

“Tristan, don’t you think that “existing corporate legal structure ” are the result of our “humanity”?”

As usual, as soon as I say anything the least bit difficult. Oh what’s the use.

. September 11, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Abrupt Climate Change

R. B. Alley, J. Marotzke, W. D. Nordhaus, J. T. Overpeck, D. M. Peteet, R. A. Pielke Jr., R. T. Pierrehumbert, P. B. Rhines, T. F. Stocker, L. D. Talley, J. M. Wallace

Large, abrupt, and widespread climate changes with major impacts have occurred repeatedly in the past, when the Earth system was forced across thresholds. Although abrupt climate changes can occur for many reasons, it is conceivable that human forcing of climate change is increasing the probability of large, abrupt events. Were such an event to recur, the economic and ecological impacts could be large and potentially serious. Unpredictability exhibited near climate thresholds in simple models shows that some uncertainty will always be associated with projections. In light of these uncertainties, policy-makers should consider expanding research into abrupt climate change, improving monitoring systems, and taking actions designed to enhance the adaptability and resilience of ecosystems and economies.

Sarah September 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Unfortunately Obama is spending his political capital on health. If Obama succeeds in getting his healthcare bill passed then I am not sure that focusing on this and not on climate change during his first year is a bad thing in the medium term for climate change efforts. Two reasons:
1) Obama has argued persuasively that healthcare in the US is a budgetary problem, for the state (medicare and medicaid), for employers, and for households, because the cost of healthcare is so astronomically high and still rising. As such, getting equivalent healthcare at lower cost frees up a lot of money which can be invested in other things, like green technologies, new infrastructure, retro-fitting houses for energy efficiency etc.
2) The US census bureau estimates that 45.7 million Americans, 15% of the population, had no health insurance in 2008. In any given year, 1/3 of Americans are estimated to be without health insurance for some period (i.e. gaps in coverage). It will be very difficult to persuade people to prioritize climate change as an issue if they are terrified about their lack of health insurance, or on the verge of bankrupcy due to healthcare costs. As such, fixing the US healthcare system promises to remove short-term crises that would distract the electorate from longer term health (and economic & political) challenges.

Tristan September 11, 2009 at 6:08 pm

“It will be very difficult to persuade people to prioritize climate change as an issue if they are terrified about their lack of health insurance, or on the verge of bankrupcy due to healthcare costs.”

I’ll agree with that. I’m less depressed already!

. September 11, 2009 at 6:15 pm
Sasha September 12, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Forgive me for being political about this, but I would say that a serious part of why we aren’t rising to the challenge of climate change is that we are still unwilling to name the actual crisis. The crisis has been caused by over-consumption, which is inherently unsustainable. What we need in response is cultural change, and that is an arena where individuals can have agency (I think, forgive my optimism…). We need to create in our lives and with all those around us cultures where unsustainable consumption is not lauded, where having less and living a simpler, higher quality life is valued. That said, this needs to occur on a mass scale, and given that we still seem to insist this is a solely ecological issue, apart from culture, we are a long ways away yet.

This is what comes to mind for me, Milan, when you say that there is no immediate benefit to fighting climate change – there is! The benefit is an escape from the eternal cycle of want that today’s market economy depends on generating, which seeks to keep people feeling perpetually unfulfilled based not on who they are but what they have. Reducing our consumption to sustainable levels would raise our quality of life considerably.

Anon September 12, 2009 at 1:26 pm

People are very sensitive to relative social standing: who has the bigger car, the bigger wedding, the better vacation.

While eco-minimalists assert that we would be happier with less, human psychology suggests otherwise.

Tristan September 12, 2009 at 1:52 pm

“The benefit is an escape from the eternal cycle of want that today’s market economy depends on generating, which seeks to keep people feeling perpetually unfulfilled based not on who they are but what they have.”

This is exactly what hardly any mainstream environmentalists, except maybe Suzuki, are willing to advocate. This means the end of capitalism-as-we-know-it. To be explicit, “[that] which seeks to keep people feeling perpetually unfulfilled based not on who they are but what they have” is pretty might right-on the Frankfurt School’s critique of democratic capitalism.

Tristan September 12, 2009 at 1:54 pm

“People are very sensitive to relative social standing: who has the bigger car, the bigger wedding, the better vacation.

While eco-minimalists assert that we would be happier with less, human psychology suggests otherwise.”

Are you seriously asserting that these desires are culturally and historically non-relative?

Man, let’s throw our uncritical faith in the reality of the status quo because science can see that it exists!

Milan September 12, 2009 at 1:57 pm

The ‘actual crisis’ is the effect rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses have on the climate, and in turn on human beings.

A cheap and effective technology solution that removes those gasses would solve the problem just as effectively as convincing the planet to adopt a zero-carbon lifestyle (though the latter might solve other problems).

Rather than assume we need to carry any political ideology to its conclusion to deal with climate change, it seems a lot more practical to see it as a problem of physics and chemistry. We just need to make our global lifestyle compatible with the physical parameters of what the planet can stand.

Milan September 12, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Incidentally, there are a considerable range of possible carbon-neutral lifestyles. They include Middle Ages-type subsistence agriculture with virtually no technology, as well as an advanced society based on renewable forms of energy.

Milan September 12, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Finally, it is easy to denounce the goods other people value as trivial or even morally inferior (SUVs, etc).

But how many readers were willing to give up travel, even when nobody could come up with a decent argument for why it is not unethical, given the climatic consequences?

Tristan September 12, 2009 at 3:10 pm

“We just need to make our global lifestyle compatible with the physical parameters of what the planet can stand.”

Why is that easier than radical political change? It seems like an unargued assumption to me, and perhaps unjustified – especially in the context of this being a discussion in response to a post which was largely about how how the system is set such that it prevents the kind of foresight and change we need.

. September 12, 2009 at 3:20 pm

“Our lesson to liberals should be that without our radical leftist help you will not be able to help what little you have of democracy…” (18:20)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GD69Cc20rw

Milan September 12, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Why is that easier than radical political change?

Specifying means can only make something equally or more difficult, never less.

“Get up on the roof, using (X means)” is always at least as difficult as getting up on the roof by any means.

While it is logically possible that radical political change is the only way to deal with climate change, the onus is on those who believe that to prove it. Otherwise, it is safer and fairer to consider alternative possibilities.

Tris September 12, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Actually, the onus concerns doing it. Proof is an island in the setting sun.

Emily September 13, 2009 at 1:31 am

While eco-minimalists assert that we would be happier with less, human psychology suggests otherwise.

I would blame enculturation over human psychology. Though I’m not sure you can parse the two so easily. We’re just trained on the agricultural farming mode of living – store more, live more – rather than the hunt n’ gather as you go approach to living.

I agree with Milan that having children seems unwise at this point. Even if humanity figures out a way to subsist in a zero-carbon, climate-stabilized future, I think we’ll see a lot of difficult transition in the mean-time.

I doubt I would be able to achieve the ‘outbidding others through wealth’ status, and I’m not sure that’s a place where I’d like to be. The off-grid lifestyle sounds lovely, but that’s just because I’m a city girl who knows too little to appreciate it in any serious sense.

At the end of the day, I hope to channel my energy into social programming, like literacy programs, to help put kids in a better position to navigate a difficult future.

Tris September 13, 2009 at 10:51 am

The appeal to a natural desire for over consumption is tired and false. Look at the example of the Norse settlers of Greenland in Collapse-it’s possible for a society to have a set of values that are opposed to this ‘natural’

Milan September 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Even if being expansionist isn’t innate to human beings, it does seem plausible that individuals and societies driven by the desire to amass wealth will generally outcompete those that do not, or that willingly restrain themselves.

How are the Greenland Norse an exception? Their obsession with raising high-status cattle contributed significantly to the destruction of their society.

Sasha September 13, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Milan, you can put me on your list of people who avoid travel, especially by air.

“It seem plausible that individuals and societies driven by the desire to amass wealth will generally outcompete those that do not, or that willingly restrain themselves.”

That doesn’t seem plausible to me at all. It seems to me that those who amass will run out of resources while those who use less will last longer.

I also have to agree that this endless “wanting” is not some natural element of human psychology; I actually think of it more as a psychological malfunction when it occurs, as it ensures perpetual misery – The Joneses can’t be kept up with, etc. I think it’s much more natural to covet sunsets and time with loved ones than shiny things that go beep or the latest in home decor.

Milan September 13, 2009 at 1:37 pm

It seems to me that those who amass will run out of resources while those who use less will last longer.

Only true in the long term, and for those who cannot access resources outside their territory.

Milan September 13, 2009 at 1:44 pm

On travel, I think the world would be a far better place if it was possible to go places quickly and often, without producing greenhouse gas emissions. Travel has enriched the lives of many people, and contributed to a lot of cross-cultural understanding. It can also make it economically possible to preserve rather than exploit especially beautiful places.

There is no virtue in voluntarily refraining from travel, for its own sake. It’s just something that becomes morally necessary due to climate change.

Emily September 13, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Travel has enriched the lives of many people, and contributed to a lot of cross-cultural understanding.

I agree.. The traveling I have done has certainly expanded my view of the world. But, we are very lucky in that we can open up any area of the world for ourselves with teh internets. It’s a poor substitution, maybe like making love to a blow up doll, instead of a real person, but you can certainly garner some experience that way. Through the internet, I mean.

Though, I find that my fly-only-when-unavoidable plan has me contemplating how to take advantage of the geography within bussing or boating distance. A little creativity can lead you to have just as rich experiences, closer to home.

In theory.

Matt September 13, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Milan, you can put me on your list of people who avoid travel, especially by air.

Though, I find that my fly-only-when-unavoidable plan has me contemplating how to take advantage of the geography within bussing or boating distance.

The point’s been beat to death in other threads, but airplanes aren’t particularly fuel inefficient, it’s that they fly long distances. Air travel is less polluting, distance wise, than boating. If you’re making the same trip via a different method of travel, you’re only taking longer to do so, but you aren’t saving fuel/expending less CO2.

Tristan September 13, 2009 at 4:11 pm

The Greenland Norse had social taboos against innovation and invention. While these values contributed to their ultimate demise, they were also a strength – they contributed to the fact Norse Greenland lasted longer than previous attempts at settling, and longer than many first nations attempts to populate the island:

“Much of what the chiefs and clergy valued proved eventually harmful to the society. Yet the society’s values were at hte root of its strengths as well as of its weaknesses. The Greenland Norse did succeed in creating a unique form of European society, and in surviving for 450 years as Europe’s most remote outpost….their society survived for longer than our English speaking society has survived so far in North America.”

If their values had been simply to amass wealth and expand, they clearly would have eaten fish and not starved to death anyway. Norse values included limitations – limit the number of people who can become powerful, limit the number of resources which can be extracted. These limits prevented the accrual of wealth, the expansion of society. It is therefore, I think, a mistake to equivocate the Norse elite’s over-grazing of herds with the way we over-consume our resources.

Tristan September 13, 2009 at 4:17 pm

It’s already possible to take buses or trains virtually anywhere you can fly to. The main limitation against these modes of transport is they are slow. This would not be a problem if we had European style vacations (i.e. starting at six weeks a year, rather than two). This would also have the benefit of creating more jobs, and the disadvantage of increased training expense might be offset by the benefit of more employment and better job satisfaction, i.e. longer careers.

More generally, I think, longer vacations could contribute towards slower, more environmentally friendly lives. Being over-worked might be a large obstacle to putting the work into one’s residences required to make it more energy efficient, also.

Even more generally, a slow changover from a society obsessed with profit and productivity, to one concentrated on quality in work and quality in life, seems more compatible with the values of sustainability and world-mindfulness.

Ryan Nassichuk September 13, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I have struggled with my responses to climate change. I think it is all to easy to view this problem through a lens of government policy, conferences, economics, and academic analysis. It is far less comfortable to view it through the tailpipe of an autorickshaw in Kolkata, burning a mixture of gasoline, kerosene, and motor oil in a dirty two-stroke motor.

Unfortunately, as a species, we are going to burn every last gram of fossil fuel energy contained within the earth. Some will be able to curtain their usage, but the majority won’t. We’re hooked.

People in rich countries can buy as many hybrid automobiles as they like, it will only slow down the inevitable, and will barely manage to do that.

Politics will not stop this. It is very sad, but, as idividuals, we con’t do anything of consequence. It is a collective problem, and, as a collective, good decisions have never been our species’ strong point.

I tell everyone who will listen that now is the time to prepare. Here are a few things people can do. Will they halt climate change? No. Will they help society in general to adapt to the coming thousand years of crisis? No. Will they make life more livable for the select few who can manage the lifestyle changes needed to not be crushed by the horrific future that is just around the corner? Perhaps.

-Don’t have children
-Stay out of debt (no mortgage, no automobile payments, no credit card debt, etc.)
-Don’t buy a car
-Learn how to grow food, save seeds, build and maintain soil fertility
-Move away from cities
-Stay physically and mentally healthy
-Don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or use drugs
-Develop practical skills that are useful to your community

With a great deal of resistance from friends, family, and the status quo, I have managed to accomplish some of the above list. The rest will come soon.

Ryan Nassichuk September 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm

oops – Lots of typos.

to – too
curtain – curtail
con’t – cant

etc.

Emily September 13, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or use drugs

Oh, isn’t *that* a horrific future in and of itself?

R.K. September 13, 2009 at 8:29 pm

It is a touch Taliban-esque.

In every society, people have been enjoying intoxicants for thousands of years.

Gabe September 13, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Milan wrote: But how many readers were willing to give up travel, even when nobody could come up with a decent argument for why it is not unethical, given the climatic consequences?

Milan, is it ethical to heat your house beyond, say, 5 degrees celcius? (or other suitable margin to prevent pipes from freezing). What about showering in hot water? After all, this is Ottawa, and I presume that you own more than enough clothing to make this a feasible survival strategy.

Or perhaps take the question another way: If I were to decide to fly some distance, but to lower the temperature of my house to 5 C and give up hot showers for the winter in order to avoid emitting an equivalent amount of carbon, would that, in your view be an ethically neutral decision?

While the questions above may seem facetious, rest assured they are anything but. My point is merely that almost anything can be construed as an un-needed luxury.

Getting right to the point (i.e. long distance travel isn’t morally special), a related question:

How can you morally justify consuming any good or product that a subsistence farmer living in a dacha in Northern Russia does not.

or taken to the extreme:

How can you morally justify continuing to consume any good that causes the emission of carbon, including those that sustain your own life.

So as to avoid an accusation of playing devil’s advocate, my own view: Personally, I’m quite morally comfortable with choosing to engage in certain luxurious behaviours that emit carbon. However, I do what I can to minimize both the carbon emitted and to mitigate the impact thereof. As for the question at hand, I see no moral difference between travel and other carbon-emitting behaviours.
Gabe

BuddyRich September 14, 2009 at 7:14 am

My wife, and myself (from the few of her many books I have read on the subject) are fascinated with the Simple Living/voluntary simplicity movement, which more or less embodies the same principles in Ryan’s post. About the only thing I didn’t like about them, is in the debt reduction side of things ( more to do with the frugal living movement than simplicity movement, the two sort of interconnect) is that self-reliance was not the end, but rather building enough assets to live off the interest of investments was the end, which effectively plays right into the problem.

The other problem I had, is that although I am big on leading by example, leaving society and going “back to the land” so to speak is almost like giving up. I think you can effect change for the better by staying and advocating for change. I agree that perhaps there is a time to cut your losses and run in your own rational self-interest (when collapse is looming) but I don’t think the time is now.

And then if you go that route, how far do you go to protect that lifestyle? Do you adopt a firearms and ammunition acquisition strategy, or go with a share and share alike commune policy or some mix between? As Dawn of the Dead taught me, if it taught me anything, was that after any cataclysm (AGW induced or zombie plague) , lawless brigands will inevitably find your garden of eden (or shopping mall) and try to take it by force.

Matt September 14, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Gabe, I really liked how you worded your post.

I think trying to rank people’s morality is totally useless and probably only serves to alienate the people you need to reach. It’s like telling someone they’re amoral because they don’t subscribe to your religion; you’re not going to win them over, and they’re going to ignore or discredit you.

Milan September 14, 2009 at 7:25 pm

My point was simply that people can be hypocritical when they advocate a ‘simpler life.’

They assume that people will give up things that they don’t personally desire, such as SUVs, and they hope that they can hold on to even the most resource- and emission-intensive of the things they do value.

Phillippa Biggs September 17, 2009 at 7:13 am

The problem arises because we are burning up carbon stored by the Earth millions of years ago in response to a previous CO2 surge back then to release energy today (the “past sunlight” theory). Population growth is only adding to this problem. As individuals, we are now hooked to our consumerist standard of living and carbon-consuming luxuries like cars, dishwashers etc.

Politicians can’t see beyond the next election or the next regime change, so they are not going to be able to initiate the longer-term action needed. Bizarrely, a few enlightened companies are starting to take action, because they have understood that addressing climate change is important to their customers, but this is not happening fast enough. For most companies, it is propaganda and another box to tick on their corporate social reponsibility agenda.

I agree – the Earth is over-populated and over-consuming and we are all going to be living the consequences of this shortly – and noone will be immune (as the US is finding out, post-Hurricane Katerina and with all the Californian wildfires and droughts across the prairie lands). I hope Obama is thinking about which crops to plant next – it won’t be wheat or maize…

. September 19, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Global crisis ‘to strike by 2030′
By Christine McGourty
Science correspondent, BBC News

Growing world population will cause a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030, the UK government chief scientist has warned.

By 2030 the demand for resources will create a crisis with dire consequences, Prof John Beddington said.

Demand for food and energy will jump 50% by 2030 and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion, he told a conference in London.

Climate change will exacerbate matters in unpredictable ways, he added.

ann September 23, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Well, as someone who has decided to reproduce once, I’ll add this on that current in this topic:

- being intimately involved with child development has helped me understand human brain and emotional development in a way that helps me deal with adults.. including adults who emit ghgs, or deal with this issue professionally. Something about watching a toddler fight over a toy, watching how to resolve that behaviour, watching what good comes from tenderness at young ages, is profoundly informative (among other things). Oh, by the way, I’m profoundly happy to have had a child, even while being accutely aware of his potential demise via climate disasters, or a speeding truck tomorrow morning.

- I perceive an undercurrent in this conversation about personal coping strategies. Many of us have bad strategies (dunno, from dealing with siblings, mom…its that parenting thing again) that we apply to the next crisis out of habit. I don’t think becoming preachy, a hermit, or even a ‘victim’ are the most useful strategies for us or planet earth.

Here’s what I tell myself, in case its useful: Things might be really really bad. Things might just also be OK. The reality will probably be somewhere in between. If sadness over humanity is happening, feel it. Keeping aware and still not insane is a trickly balance. Keeping active while doing appropriate amounts of self-care is also sometimes tricky, but necessary. Run back to the land only if it makes you feel better. None of us are safe from anything, anywhere, and its always been that way. Fasten your seatbelts and try to enjoy the ride.

Milan September 23, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Things might be really really bad. Things might just also be OK. The reality will probably be somewhere in between.

I think it’s important to recognize that the business-as-usual projections are really, really bad. Not the worst-case scenario projections, but those based on moderate estimations of climate sensitivity (3.5°C to 4.5°C of warming for a doubling of CO2 concentrations) and emission trajectory projections more conservative than what has transpired in reality so far.

These projections do not fully account for positive feedbacks that could make actual climatic sensitivity much higher.

To have any shot at an OK outcome, we need to dramatically reduce global emissions within the next few decades.

ann September 24, 2009 at 10:47 am

I recognize that fully. But even though we’ve been such train-wrecks up till now, assuming we continue to do business-as-usual for another 10, 20 years is also a pessimistic assumption. (Now, i’m not saying impossible, but pessimistic wihtin the range of options). Things can change. I am just trying to be aware of all potentials with proper weights attached.

Milan September 24, 2009 at 10:53 am

I have yet to see anything that makes me see business-as-usual as anything but the most likely future course. The prospects for a strong agreement at Copenhagen are weak, and there has been backsliding everywhere on past mitigation commitments. Given the choice between political unpopularity of the sort carbon pricing and other mitigation measures might create, I think most governments will be happy to quietly jettison promises that have proven inconvenient.

I think you need to be an optimist to expect any mitigation at all in the next few decades.

ann September 24, 2009 at 2:36 pm

If you can be pessimistic (or call it realistic) but still take constructive action then so be it. But most of us can’t; we just give up. So I don’t widely advocate pessimism. I don’t actually even widely advocate optimism. I’m just a fan of doing what we can. There may just be a Katrina II that this time will wake people up, change the game, and progress could be possible. It’s one of many possibilities. It would be a shame to miss out on capitalizing upon a good opportunity because i was too depressed and un-engaged!

So my focus on the personal here is only in regards to how it supports our outward action. Might as well do what we can. Gotta do something with this life, and stamp collecting isn’t that fun anyway.

Tristan September 24, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I think natural disasters are extremely unlikely to change the tide on climate change mitigation. Climate change doesn’t even cause natural disasters, it just makes them more likely.

Anything is possible. It’s possible even that crazy conspiracy theorists are right. It’s possible that something like the Christian God exists. The fact something is possible doesn’t make it interesting or serious. Only possibilities whose likelyhood can be forecast with some basis in reality are interesting.

I think there are plenty of realistic possibilities for engagement. However, as Milan continues to argue for, but strangely deny, the changes we might have to make first are political ones. And on that front there are plenty of opportunities for involvement.

Tristan September 24, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Does anyone remember the first Colbert Report – where Stephen calls his audience “doers” – and that they are “doing something right now, they are watching TV? Watching TV is doing something – but it’s doing something as an individual, and its an activity that makes you more individuated. TV certainly hurts community.

But just as some activities are individuating, others create community engagement. This blog, for instance, is a kind of community. Reading this blog is “doing something”, and so is commenting, participating in discussions.

I think the subtext of this disagreement between Milan and Ann over whether the right thing is to be optimistic, and what that means – actually is grounded in a serious point: do we need myths, ideals, in order to move towards real change? Said differently, is the recognition of the status quo, itself a preserving force for the status quo?

The answer is in one sense absolutely yes – we need myths, ideals. We need to fight for worlds that don’t yet exist. But, that doesn’t justify ungrounded optimism – because false beliefs about a future event that will save us also guards the status quo.

The test for our ideals, our myths about future possibilities, can be nothing else but what is effective – what spurns change, what drives us towards those goals.

Milan September 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

I think assuming that mitigation will happen – as Ann seems to advocate – risks robbing us of the sense of urgency that is necessary to actually achieve that outcome.

In many ways, it makes more sense to strive for a 10% cut by 2010, rather than a 40% cut by 2020, or even carbon neutrality by 2100.

Achieving a modest near-tem mitigation success would provide some empirical evidence that optimism may be justified.

. September 24, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Apocalyptic psychology
June 13, 2008

Milan September 25, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood I am reminded that personal self-defence skills are important things to have in an uncertain world. That is arguably especially true for women, given how often they are victimized in both stable and chaotic societies.

They might be a wise thing for parents to insist on having their children develop.

The book is also making me think that having a few weeks of food storage on hand can’t really be a bad idea.

. September 28, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Four degrees of warming ‘likely’
By David Shukman
Environment correspondent, BBC News

In a dramatic acceleration of forecasts for global warming, UK scientists say the global average temperature could rise by 4C (7.2F) as early as 2060.

The Met Office study used projections of fossil fuel use that reflect the trend seen over the last 20 years.

Their computer models also factored in new findings on how carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans and forests.

The finding was presented at an Oxford University conference exploring the implications of a 4C rise.

The results show a “best estimate” of 4C being reached by 2070, with a possibility that it will come as early as 2060.

Richard Betts of the Met Office Hadley Centre described himself as “shocked” that so much warming could occur within the lifetimes of people alive today.

“If greenhouse gas emissions are not cut soon then we could see major climate changes within our own lifetimes,” he said.

“Four degrees of warming averaged over the globe translates into even greater warming in many regions, along with major changes in rainfall.”

The model finds wide variations, with the Arctic possibly seeing a rise of up to 15C (27F) by the end of the century.

Western and southern parts of Africa could warm by up to 10C, with other land areas seeing a rise of 7C or more.

. September 29, 2009 at 9:57 am

Op-Ed Columnist
Cassandras of Climate

By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: September 27, 2009

Every once in a while I feel despair over the fate of the planet. If you’ve been following climate science, you know what I mean: the sense that we’re hurtling toward catastrophe but nobody wants to hear about it or do anything to avert it.

And here’s the thing: I’m not engaging in hyperbole. These days, dire warnings aren’t the delusional raving of cranks. They’re what come out of the most widely respected climate models, devised by the leading researchers. The prognosis for the planet has gotten much, much worse in just the last few years.

What’s driving this new pessimism? Partly it’s the fact that some predicted changes, like a decline in Arctic Sea ice, are happening much faster than expected. Partly it’s growing evidence that feedback loops amplifying the effects of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are stronger than previously realized. For example, it has long been understood that global warming will cause the tundra to thaw, releasing carbon dioxide, which will cause even more warming, but new research shows far more carbon locked in the permafrost than previously thought, which means a much bigger feedback effect.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 10:05 am

It’s a bit worrying that the central point of my post above is mirrored in that New York Times op-ed. It shows how mainstream and legitimate concerns about humanity snuffing out its own prosperity by failing to deal with climate change have become. We are risking more than prosperity, of course, human security and perhaps even the future of the species are at risk from catastrophic climate change.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 1:39 pm

One interesting thing about this post is the claims that are absent. In the sixties there was a lot of talk about “Freeing the mind” from “the system”, “the mechanization of thinking”, “there is a policeman inside your head – get him out!”, “don’t let thinking be stagnated by the tyranny of custom”, etc…

It’s not as if there is a general belief that we have been freed from systematic, repressive thinking. The success of Moore’s films for one shows there is much strength left in sixties style critique. However, there seems to be much less talk about doing anything about mechanical thinking, about the chains that ensnare humanity. Anarchism is out – flailing around trying to protect the welfare state is in. Protecting the status quo seems to be the best we can do in the face of global warming. The question for me is in line with a comment Sasha made earlier – that we have a deficit of hope because we are unwilling to be political radicals:

“This is what comes to mind for me, Milan, when you say that there is no immediate benefit to fighting climate change – there is! The benefit is an escape from the eternal cycle of want that today’s market economy depends on generating, which seeks to keep people feeling perpetually unfulfilled based not on who they are but what they have. Reducing our consumption to sustainable levels would raise our quality of life considerably.”

There used to be serious criticism of the de-humanizing effects of the welfare state. These seem to be largely absent from mainstream discourse today. It wasn’t always so – for example, in the introduction of Micheal Ignatieff’s 1984 book called “The Needs of Strangers”:

“…[it is an] open question whether any welfare system can reconcile this contradiction between treating individuals equally and treating individuals with respect. The most common criticism of modern welfare is precisely that in treating everyone the same it ends up treating everyone like a thing.” (Needs of Strangers, 17)

Given how support for the status quo is exactly what is disabling action on climate change, I think it’s irresponsible to believe that the current state-corporatism, more Plutocracy than Democracy, can or should be sustained for our lifetimes. When we talk about a future cataclysmic event which will change attitudes, either those attitudes will shift us towards liberation and a freer, fairer society, or we’ll see a further reduction of democracy and embrace what is sometimes called “Capitalism with Asian values”. We have, after all, already seen the proof that democracy is not required for capitalism to flourish.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 1:55 pm

I think the most plausible way of dealing with climate change is to make a concerted push to replace the use of fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy. While our political system isn’t well-suited to dealing with problems that are far off, the ever-clearer evidence that climate change is happening will hopefully compel change before feedbacks in the system make it too late.

Jettisoning our political system for something new that isn’t fully defined, many never come about, and may not deal with climate change effectively if it does just doesn’t seem like a sensible approach.

That being said, it is already too late to avoid very serious impacts from climate change. Even if emissions started falling sharply today, we would see further warming and major resulting changes in things like precipitation. We may well have already created enough warming to melt all of Greenland, over the course of hundreds or thousands of years, adding several metres to sea level.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Of course, ‘our’ political system doesn’t really matter. Canada won’t determine the fate of the world, in this regard.

It’s the political systems of the major economies (the US, China, EU, Japan, etc) and major emitters (Indonesia may be 3rd, due to deforestation) that will play a big role in shaping outcomes.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 2:22 pm

This is exactly the kind of limited-by/to-the-status-quo thinking which I’m trying to be critical of.

“My” political system isn’t limited to an existent state, or bound by the existent state structure. “My” political system is both what is real now, and what is possible for a future – a future which need not necessarily include things like national boundaries. “My” political community is not only other citizens of my country, but other members of my class (intellectual workers), my communities (blogs, my house, the co-op, the Toronto vegan community), and citizens of the world.

“My” future political community might continue to be country-based, but it could also be local, regional, or global. It could even be without our present notion of hierarchy – as difficult as that is to imagine (although it is easy if you study other periods of history, i.e. the relations between barons and kings in England before the Magna Carta).

Milan September 29, 2009 at 2:27 pm

What assurance is there that “your” political system will deal with climate change better than what we have now?

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Your question reflects an unfortunate mis-characterization of my previous comment. I didn’t mean in any way to say that I have specific idea of how to set things up such that a genuinely free and liberated society comes into being. Really, I mentioned more problems than solutions. My comments about “my” political vision of the future don’t have any positive substantive content – they were all just stating limitations that I don’t choose to accept.

But, it’s still a valid question – How can anyone be assured that a fairer, freer, more democratic future could deal with climate change any better than the current world order?

My favorite statistic is how the majority of Bush supporters in 2000 thought that Bush was in favour of the Kyoto protocal. The idea that “humanity” is opposed to dealing with climate change is made absurd by facts like this. And how about the massive disinformation campaign in the media about the “scientific consensus”? Was that “humanity” – or was that plutocratic interests? How about the resilient strength of cooperate backed climate change deniers?

To me it is just self-evident that a free society, without strong incentives to dis-information for private gain, would proceed in a very rational way towards making the economy sustainable.

It’s also relevant to think about the distribution of wealth as something that makes change more difficult. If the rich-poor gap were shortened, society could be poorer overall while having higher over all standards of living. Being poorer overall might be a temporary effect of converting to an environmentally sustainable economy, and if a new distribution of wealth enabled people to be better off during that transition, would not a free democratic society choose that? Not to mention the extent to which fear of poverty in the present makes it difficult to appropriately value the quality of life of one’s children and grand children.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Freedom doesn’t eliminate short-sighted thinking, which is a key problem here. Responding to climate change requires coordination. Governments often have to impose that kind of thing, especially when it involves immediate material sacrifices to serve distant collective purposes.

It certainly seems true that an anarchical or libertarian society would fail to address climate change.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 3:19 pm

“Freedom doesn’t eliminate short-sighted thinking”

Sure, but why do you assume that in a free society, short-sighted thinking would rule? It’s not difficult to attribute much of the short-sightedness of today’s political discourse to particular historical manipulations, by way of media, advertising, psychologically informed election campaigns, etc…

There is nothing to say that a free society couldn’t have an elaborate government. The difference between Anarchic and non Anarchic societies is not the presence or absence of institutions, but the role those institutions play (i.e. a fostering role or a controlling role). The idea that Anarchists favour a kind of state of nature with no rules is produced by particular interests in exactly the same way as was produced the belief that feminism means “women are better than men” (a misconception the pervasiveness of which continues to amaze me.)

There is an excellent and comprehensive documentary film “Century of the Self” which Adam Curtis made for the BBC which can usually be found in its entirety on youtube.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm

One plausible model for dealing with climate change is the ‘mobilizing for World War II’ model:

All major emitters could launch a sustained push in which industry re-focuses on building renewable generation systems, electric vehicles, and related technologies for a low-carbon economy.

While such an approach would require public support, it is perfectly possible within our current economic and political structure.

Of course, there are other plausible approaches (such as the ‘tax people until they change their behaviour’ approach) and approaches could be combined. Still, I think the fact that plausible approaches that don’t require wholesale political change exist means that an approach not based around such change is less risky.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 3:24 pm

I think even anarchists deeply concerned about climate change would fail to deal with it, largely for lack of coordination. Humanity alters the climate system in hugely complex ways. Changing all those behaviours to make them compatible with a stable climate requires direction from the top, based on the best available science.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Again, you seem to be using an inaccurate, ideologically produced definition of the term “anarchy”. Anarchy does not mean no coordination, it means no unjustified impositions of control. It’s not a contradiction for an anarchic society to choose to be represented by political leaders. The difference is that those political leaders’ power is only legitimate insofar as it can be justified to the people over whom they have control, rather than the moneyed interests as is the case now. In our society, the power is legitimated by the system. In an anarchic society, the legitimacy of power legitimates the system. In other words, legitimacy doesn’t follow from the system, but enables it. Legitimacy, rather than system, is prior in the equation.

On the issue of climate change, there is a serious common-interest that all world citizens share – to mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s hard to see what would prevent global action if it were not for the strength of private interest. I again point out that if the decision of the US to ratify the Kyoto accord had been an un-announced telephone poll of republican party supporters in the year 2000, the US would have ratified it. I seriously think this is proof that the society at large (even the “right wing”!) has for ages wanted to deal with climate change because it is just the most obvious thing.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 3:59 pm

It is worth mentioning that perhaps the two most famous anarchist political thinkers, Bakunin and Kropotkin, both envisioned extremely organized societies with complex political structures which enabled various levels at which control could be exerted legitimately.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Bakunin#Collectivist_anarchism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fields,_Factories_and_Workshops

Milan September 29, 2009 at 4:06 pm

I gave what I think is a plausible example of how a society like that of China or the US today could deal with climate change (or at least seriously kick off a multi-decade process).

The best you same to be able to offer is: “It’s not impossible that anarchists (defined in a particular way) could also do it.”

That’s really not too strong a vote of support for an alternative political arrangement.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 4:10 pm

It’s hard to see what would prevent global action if it were not for the strength of private interest.

This list is a good one. Most of the obstacles have something to do with ‘private interest,’ but I don’t think this is just a matter of overcoming the resistance of big oil and coal companies. Many of the interests that may need to be sacrificed for climate change are legitimate ones, such as the desire to travel to see family.

I again point out that if the decision of the US to ratify the Kyoto accord had been an un-announced telephone poll of republican party supporters in the year 2000, the US would have ratified it.

This isn’t a fair way to evaluate political willingness. How many of those people would have had any idea what the treaty actually involved, what it would do, or what it would require of them.

I certainly don’t understand all the aspects of the Kyoto system, nor could I guess how it would have played out if it had been more energetically supported by various major emitters.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Alongside a massive drive towards renewables, another excellent thing governments could do would be to heavily tax all the fossil fuels that are extracted in their territory – regardless of whether they will be used domestically or exported.

That would reflect the fact that it is cumulative emissions that matter. Just getting more efficient about fossil fuel use isn’t enough. We need to ensure that most of the fossil fuels that remain to be extracted are actually left forever in the ground instead.

Anyone extracting a barrel of oil or a tonne of coal should have to pay for the impact that burning it will have on all future generations everywhere.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 4:40 pm

“This isn’t a fair way to evaluate political willingness.”

It certainly proves that Bush could have signed the Kyoto accord without loosing popular support. In other words, it proves that such international accords are politically possible with respect to the popular interest.

But, this isn’t surprising. Polling for the last 30 years has indicated a strong desire to see universal health care in the US, and it only became “politically possible” when large auto manufacturers began lobbying for it.

Basically, we need a political arrangement that gives a shit about what people think. That’s really a bare minimum criteria for legitimated power.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 4:45 pm

It ‘proves’ no such thing (and wouldn’t even if such a survey had been done and turned out as you predicted).

If Bush had ratified it, he would have gotten attacked by a lot of influential people and lobbies, such as right-wing talk radio hosts and populist members of the Republican Party. People who didn’t understand what they supported before could be made angry by all the misleading arguments still being trotted out to oppose climate action, such as that it will cost millions of jobs.

Most people are not well-informed on climate change. Rather, they have vague opinions based around positions taken by news sources they find trustworthy.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Telephone surveys are also notoriously easy to manipulate.

Milan September 29, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Note that ratifying Kyoto also doesn’t mean taking serious action to deal with climate change.

Rich countries that ratified have mostly failed to cut emissions since 1990.

Excluding LULUCF here are some of the 1990-2004 increases:

Canada 27%
Australia 25%
Spain 49%
New Zealand 21%
Japan 6.5%

Including LULUCF, they are:

Canada 26.6%
Australia 5.2%
Spain 50.4%
New Zealand 17.9%
Japan 5.2%

The most successful states have been Denmark (down 19% without LULUCF), Germany (down 17% largely due to replacing coal plants with gas plants), and the UK (down 14%).

If the US had ratified and then behaved like Canada (never implementing a plan to actually cut emissions), there would have been no climatic value. As it happens, US emissions went up by about 20% between 1990 and 2004.

. September 29, 2009 at 4:56 pm

McCain assails Senate Democrats’ climate bill
Tue Sep 29, 2009 4:43pm EDT

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican Senator John McCain, a leading voice for reducing carbon emissions, said on Tuesday he will not support the climate change bill being introduced by Senate Democrats, illustrating the lack of bipartisan support for the bill.

Asked whether he could support the Democrats’ bill as now written, McCain, the Republican’s unsuccessful candidate for president last year, replied: “Of course not. Never, never, never.”

Milan September 29, 2009 at 4:57 pm

And McCain is probably the top Republican most supportive of action on climate change…

Maintaining political support within the American right while taking action on climate change is no simple thing.

Tristan September 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Look, if you think averting climate change will be a good thing for humanity in general, then any decision making process that enables humanity in general to do what’s good for it will, if it functions properly, avert climate change by sheer tautology.

Anarchism is not so different from democracy. In fact, any truly democratic society is probably by definition anarchic.

You give examples of how societies like the US or China could kick off averting climate change, but these are just empty examples if they don’t happen. Expecting those in power to do it, when the status quo supports inaction, and when political interest means short term electoral popularity, seems strange to me.

I think the nation state system we have likely will begin averting climate change at some point, but probably not before serious world catastrophies justify greater reductions in liberty and greater divisions between the rich and poor.

Milan September 30, 2009 at 11:14 am

You give examples of how societies like the US or China could kick off averting climate change, but these are just empty examples if they don’t happen.

Isn’t it far emptier to say: “We need some kind of vague massive political change. Once it happens, dealing with climate change will be easier” ?

As I’ve said before, those seeking action on climate change have three options. They can work with the level of public support that already exists, making incremental changes in the electricity generation mix and vehicle fleet composition. They can work to build public support, both by making people aware of the dangers and aware of the opportunities involved in moving to a renewably-backed economy. Thirdly, they can plan for when more public support exists, so good policies can be implemented then.

All that is a lot more practical that incorporating climate change into some vast political project intended to build a society that is better on many fronts. As I have said before, nothing else we do now will seem terrible important in 50 years if catastrophic climate change emerges. Nobody will care how representative or non-representative Canada’s parliament was, nor whether Obama passed health care reform or not.

Milan September 30, 2009 at 11:21 am

One reason for objecting to the approach I call ‘plausible’ above is to agree with Speth that, even without climate change, humanity is on the path to near-term self-destruction, as the result of managing resources and wastes poorly.

If that is true, we need a much more comprehensive overhaul of our political and economic systems.

Personally, I don’t think any other environmental problem has the same level of risk and urgency associated with it. It seems fanciful to imagine anything else wiping out a substantial portion of the human race, whereas that seems likely to be the result of climate change in a scenario where we maintain current behaviour for another fifty years or so.

ann September 30, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Holy crow, I think my comments took a direction I didnt intend. I’m fully aware of how much trouble we are likely in. My point about the personal (and forget optimism/pessimism, that’s a distraction) is that eco-depression is understandable but sub-optimal IF it means we minimize our capacities to act on the (albeit slim) chance that some significant repair can happen. You can’t do any of the “three options” milan lists above if you just decide its hopeless and give up. That’s just a reality of human brain wiring. The personal truly is political.

“There’s a scientific reason to be concerned and there’s a scientific reason to push for action. But there’s no scientific reason to despair.” – Dr. Gavin Schmidt, NASA Climate Scientist

Milan September 30, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Forced optimism can be paralysing, too. It can depend on a kind of self-blinkering, where real risks are ignored or their magnituded is unjustly played down.

I think we are increasingly in a position where it is credible to say that the science gives cause to despair. Despair is probably the right initial reaction to actually crossing a point of no return, with catastrophic climate change at the end of the line. There is good reason to think we’re close to that line. Some – like the 350 people – think we’re already across it (though in a way that could be reversed with very rapid and dramatic action, of the kind Monbiot advocates).

Responding to climate change is not a case where it is beneficial for people to make choices that assume future conditions will be better than they actually end up being. Placing heavy bets that business will remain normal during the coming decades strikes me as foolish.

R.K. September 30, 2009 at 2:37 pm

There may be cases in which despair is an understandable response, but I don’t think it is ever a desirable one.

If there is any chance of improving things, despair is unwarranted. If there is no chance at all, something like calm acceptance is probably best.

Tristan September 30, 2009 at 2:41 pm

“We need some kind of vague massive political change”

What is vague about making democracy work, about making leaders accountable, about making power justify itself? Isn’t that the trend that is already showing itself?

All I’m saying is that people, given reasonable evidence, will choose to avert climate change. The reason why climate change aversion is “politically impossible” is the same reason health care reform was politically impossible before GM asked for it – a small group has huge control over the discourse, in effect, controlling democracy.

Your position seems to be we should expect strong leaders to impose climate change aversion? But in the west we don’t have “strong leaders”, we have a political system co-opted by business interests.

“They can work with the level of public support that already exists, making incremental changes in the electricity generation mix and vehicle fleet composition. They can work to build public support, both by making people aware of the dangers and aware of the opportunities involved in moving to a renewably-backed economy. Thirdly, they can plan for when more public support exists, so good policies can be implemented then.”

Yes, sure, of course I agree. But why does activism have to remain on the level of supporting incremental improvements to CO2 – why can’t it also strive for incremental improvements in democracy?

I think it’s a huge mistake to talk about “public support” as something that isn’t continually being produced by specific interests. I mean, you basically already argued against this point when you asserted that if Bush had supported the Kyoto accord (which most of his supporters thought he supported), public support would have vanished because of the right wing media scare tactics. Of course, you’re right. But that means you are wrong here – “public support” doesn’t exist outside a system of media production that is hurting democracy.

I’m not saying anything more radical here than, for example, Jon Stewart said when he was interviewed on Crossfire.

Milan September 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Despair may not be desirable, and I didn’t say it was an appropriate overall reaction – just that it is “probably the right initial reaction to actually crossing a point of no return.”

It might be better to say “probably the right initial reaction to approaching a point of no return.” It is there that the kind of thinking associated with a strong emotion might have a shot at producing a sharp swerve in behaviour. Of course, it would be better to avoid that need in the first place.

Milan September 30, 2009 at 2:53 pm

“[M]aking leaders accountable” is still a vague statement. What specifically are you proposing? Are you thinking about Canada, democratic societies generally, or all states? How will whatever changes you endorse help produce better climate policies?

I am hoping that concern about climate change continues to build, to the point where reflexively opposing good climate policies isn’t something credible right-wing parties do anymore. That could produce the necessary breakthrough in North America. Of course, Europe is already in more or less that situation and they still haven’t been too effective at reducing emissions. Arguably, that is because they won’t be able to really commit to that process until they can assure their voters and industries that their major competitors are also doing so.

As mentioned several times before, some major high-profile disasters could also shift public opinion.

I am not talking about “incremental improvements.” The prudent course would be to go as far as Monbiot suggests and ban things like coal plants, many uses of private cars, most air travel, some forms of agriculture, etc. Of course, the politically possible course excludes most such options, at least for now. I don’t see how a more democratic or anarchistic society would necessarily make people more willing to support any such policies.

“public support” doesn’t exist outside a system of media production that is hurting democracy.

This is very true (see the point above about the ease of manipulating surveys). The media has generally done a poor job of reporting on climate change. Partly, this is because the science is hard. Partly, it is because they have a flawed notion of fairness, based around presenting conflict. They think the fair approach is to put one scientist and one denier on the air, and they are easily manipulated by cynical agents that want to perpetuate business-as-usual.

As for Jon Stewart, I appreciate him very much as a critic, but I don’t think his positive suggestions are always terribly well thought-through or justified.

ann September 30, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Milan, I’m worried about you! You have a brilliant mind, and we need it oriented towards that however small possibility of change. I just don’t want you, as a human being, to throw in the towel. And fortunately, by what I know of your actions, you are not.

I am not advocating “forced optimism”, or “assuming that mitigation will happen”. To explain fully is hard in a comment box. This page, especially towards the bottom (a zen cite, but the ideas apply whether you like zen or not) expresses it.
http://www.wwzc.org/teisho/NoConsolation.htm

“A broken heart is a reasonable thing in this world. But do not become the sadness but do not avoid it.”

Milan September 30, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Ann,

There are two different levels of analysis here:

  1. What is the true state of the world?
  2. How should we think about the world, given what we want to achieve?

For instance, should we try to ‘focus on the positive’ because doing so makes us more effective at driving the agenda we support?

Personally, I am distrustful of the idea that we should try to deceive ourselves into acting better. At the same time, I don’t see any way to be especially useful on climate change right now. Depressingly, this is also true of most of the serious environmentalists I know. Certainly, the answer is closer to resistance than it is to abstinence.

R.K. September 30, 2009 at 3:42 pm

I don’t see any way to be especially useful on climate change right now.

Why not join Greenpeace or the Sierra Club or whoever?

Helping to run letter-writing campaigns isn’t glamorous, but it probably achieves more than blogging and worrying.

. October 1, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Therapy on the Titanic

A recent Facebook exchange was striking. Someone posted a Washington Post article on the latest climate science. It predicted a temperature rise of 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century if no systemic changes are made to reduce our carbon output. The better case scenario—in which world governments implement their current promises to cut emissions—would keep the warming to only 6 degrees.

Another person responded, “This is so heartbreaking I don’t know how I can hold it.”

An increasing number of people note with horror the destruction caused by the current level of carbon in the atmosphere, which has caused the earth to warm by just over 1 degree. Compared to a decade ago, when I first learned of the gravity of climate change, there has been an enormous upswell of fear, concern, and protest.

Milan October 2, 2009 at 12:43 pm

More reasons for being unimpressed with humanity (the websites are truly terrible).

ann October 6, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Milan please don’t turn into Crake (from Oryx and Crake) and genetically engineer a better version of homo sapiens! Crakers would have their “design flaws” too.

My copy of ecopsychology makes a similar point to ‘therapy on the titanic’ above. A german women was once diagnosed with irrational fears, and “responsded well” to therapy. A week later, as a jew, she was rounded up to a concentration camp. Not so irrational after all. BUT, maybe a better therapy would have helped her see the grain of truth in her fears, and helped her make plans to proactively get out.

I think this distinction is helpful in this discussion too. I am not seeking a world view to provide emotional palliative care as we head towards doom. I’m seeking my own balance so that I have my ‘shit together’ enough to be a warrior.

Milan October 6, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Milan please don’t turn into Crake (from Oryx and Crake) and genetically engineer a better version of homo sapiens! Crakers would have their “design flaws” too.

Couldn’t we at least turn human retinas the right way around? Sure, there are much more useful modifications we could make, but this one would carry little risk of serious unintended consequences.

. October 7, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Gwynne Dyer: Losing control of climate change
By Gwynne Dyer

My youngest daughter is 17, so she will have lived most of her life before the worst of the warming hits. But her later years will not be easy, and her kids will have it very hard from the start. As for their kids, I just don’t know.

“We’ve always talked about these very severe impacts only affecting future generations,” said Dr. Betts, “but people alive today could live to see a 4 ° C rise. People will say it’s an extreme scenario, and it is an extreme scenario, but it’s also a plausible scenario.”

All we have to do is go on burning fossil fuels at the rate we do now, and we’ll be there by the 2080s. Keep increasing our carbon dioxide emissions in pace with economic growth, as we have done over the past decade, and we’ll be there by the 2060s. “There” is not a good place to be.

At an average of 4 ° C warmer, 15 percent of the world’s farmland has become useless due to heat and drought, and crop yields have fallen sharply on half of the rest: an overall 30–40 percent fall in global food production. Since the world’s population has grown by two billion by then, there will be only half the food per person that we have now. Many people will starve.

In Britain, at 4 ° C hotter, there would doubtless be severe food rationing, but the country could still just feed itself if it farmed every available piece of land: the heat would not be lethal, and it would still be raining. That’s one advantage of being an island surrounded by sea; the other is that it’s easier to avoid being completely overrun by refugees. Britain would be almost unrecognisable, but it would be seen as one of the luckiest places on the planet.

At the moment, we are in control of the situation if we want to be, for it is our excess emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing the warming. But if melting permafrost and warming oceans begin to give up the immense amounts of greenhouse gases that they contain, then we find ourselves on a climate escalator that inexorably takes us up through 3 ° C, 4 ° C, 5 ° C, and 6 ° C with no way to get off.

The point where we lose control, most scientists believe, is when the average global temperature reaches between 2 ° C and 3 ° C warmer. After that, it hardly matters whether human beings cut their own emissions, because the natural emissions triggered by the warming will overwhelm all our efforts. If we don’t stop at 2 ° C, our current civilization is probably doomed.”

. October 8, 2009 at 4:07 pm

“We, along with four other authors, recently completed a report [PDF] for Economics for Equity and the Environment Network (E3), surveying the economic studies informed by recent science. The report found that quicker action aimed at more ambitious targets makes good economic sense. The report outlines what it will take to achieve 350 and finds that a comprehensive global strategy is still well-within the range of what most reasonable people are willing to pay today to avoid far greater damages from climate change down the road. With likely investments of about 1-3 percent of global GDP, we could rewire the planet with clean energy, rebuild global forests to trap billions of tons of carbon, create jobs, and stabilize the climate. And depending on factors such as the price of oil, these investments might actually save us money.

The bad news on the climate front is NOT that the costs of preventing climate change are becoming too expensive. Estimates of the costs have remained relatively stable, while estimates of the likely costs of inaction are becoming unbearable. Whether the final number is 450 or 350, we face no insoluble technical or economic challenges. This is still a problem we can afford to solve. Stopping global warming remains fundamentally a problem of political will.”

. November 30, 2009 at 4:42 pm

“We can solve the climate crisis. It will be hard, to be sure, but if we choose to solve it, I have no doubt whatsoever that we can and will succeed.

Moreover, we should feel a sense of joy that those of us alive today have a rare privilege that few generations in history have known: the chance to undertake an historic mission worthy of our best efforts. It should be seen as an honor to live in a time when the future of human civilization will be shaped forever by what we do now.”

Gore, Al. Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. (p. 15 paperback)

Milan November 30, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I like that Gore quote a lot. It reminds me of a message I’ve repeated over and over:

“By investing reasonable amounts now in transforming our energy system and protecting carbon sinks – as well as by creating increasingly powerful incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – states can not only prevent the scenarios above from occurring, they can also switch the energy basis of their society from dirty and unsustainable fossil fuels towards renewable forms of energy that can be relied upon indefinitely.”

- August 19, 2009

“If Canada cannot show the leadership or vision necessary to appreciate the risks of unconstrained climate change, as well as the opportunities in moving the energy basis of our society to a sustainable basis, our best hope is that we will be made into a pariah state by our most important trading partners.”

- May 29, 2009

“As I have said many times before, we have the chance to pull of a massive one-off step change in how our society functions, moving from an energy basis that is doubly unsustainable (because of depleting fuels and accumulating wastes) to one that we could maintain effectively forever””

- June 26, 2009

“One round-trip flight from New York to London produces the amount of greenhouse gas that one person can sustainably emit in three and a half years. These are not the kind of numbers that can be brought down with a few more wind turbines and hybrid cars; the energy basis of all states needs to be fundamentally altered, replacing a system where energy production and use are associated with greenhouse gas emissions with one where that is no longer the case.””

- January 13, 2008

“It’s not about using fewer plastic bags – it’s about pushing for a new energy basis for human civilization. We need to take personal responsibility – and agitate for systemic change – in ways that go beyond the symbolic and the trivial.”

- October 21, 2009

“The biggest benefit of all is that, once we have made the transition to a low-carbon and renewable energy basis for society, we will be able to keep using it forever. This may be an expensive and difficult transition, but it is also a one-off progression into a new mode of societal operation.”

- January 29, 2009

“There are far too many of us to go back to a pre-Industrial agrarian society. We either need to find a way to remain capable of running the essential elements of the global society without fossil fuels, or begin planning for collapse. The maddening thing is that the former option wouldn’t even be all that difficult. By devoting a modest portion of our current means to building huge solar and wind farms, as well as biomass facilities, (probably) nuclear plants, and other low-carbon sources of energy, we could shift the energy basis of our society to a sustainable footing, probably in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. The odds are just, unfortunately, stacked against that happening.”

- September 24, 2009

. December 2, 2009 at 11:44 am

Emissions targets fall short, report says

Shawn McCarthy

Ottawa — From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Dec. 01, 2009 7:05PM EST Last updated on Wednesday, Dec. 02, 2009 11:27AM EST

Developed countries have promised only half the reductions in greenhouse gases that international scientists say are necessary to prevent climate catastrophe, with Canada bringing up the rear as a global laggard.

In a report released Tuesday, the Washington-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change tallied up commitments that developed countries have announced ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit, which begins next week.

In total, industrialized countries plan to reduce emissions between 13 per cent and 19 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urged emission reductions of between 25 per cent and 40 per cent by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050, to prevent the most severe disruptions in climate, including floods and droughts.

The Harper government’s target is a 20-per-cent reduction from 2006 levels by 2020.

Pew Center analysts warned against inflated expectations for the Copenhagen meeting, saying countries are far apart on most major issues and are unlikely to reach a binding agreement until the end of 2010.

. January 22, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Emissions targets set for delay
By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News

The future of the EU’s Low Carbon Revolution hangs in the balance as it becomes likely its emissions targets will be delayed again.

The ongoing uncertainty is rooted in the EU’s offer to the Copenhagen climate summit of a 30% emissions cut.

But this was dependent on “comparable effort” from other big polluters.

Observers say there is a world of difference between the upper and lower targets – but Europe still hasn’t decided how high to aim.

The EU’s figure of 30% translates to 42% in the UK.

Along with other countries that signed the “Copenhagen Accord” it faces a deadline of 31 January to come up with final numbers and plans for reducing emissions.

. February 8, 2010 at 5:41 pm

National Climate Plans Suggest a Long, Hot Slog Ahead
By Juan-Pablo Velez

- The United States, sticking to President Obama’s previously stated goal, pledged 17 percent reductions below 2005 levels by 2020 (4 percent below 1990 levels). And even this totally inadequate target assumes that the climate bill actually clears the Senate. More details here.
- The E.U., which had promised to cut emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if other countries stepped up, stuck with its insufficent 20 percent target.
- Canada, channeling America’s lack of ambition, also picked 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (which is actually a 2.5 percent increase over the country’s 1990 levels). These pitiful targets are weaker than those Canada adopted two years ago, likely because the country sees green in its environmentally catastrophic oil exploration in the tar sands.
- Japan went whole-hog, with 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Japan and Brazil, are the only country doing what experts say is necessary.
- China is still suicidally refusing a cap on emissions. Instead, it is committing to slicing its carbon “intensity” (or carbon to GDP ratio) to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This sounds impressive, but given China’s explosive growth, this would only slow the growth of its emissions. They wouldn’t peak until around 2030, which is a decade too late.
- India is marching in lockstep with China against caps. And, as with China, its promise to curb carbon intensity by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 just doesn’t cut it. This is unlikely to change until developed countries do the just and necessary thing: funnel mitigation funding to the developing world.
- Brazil is breaking with the India and China’s intransigence with an ambitious target of 39 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. To reach it, they must halt deforestation in the Amazon, which will require massive first-world funding.
- Australia is hedging its bets: It pledged as little 3 percent and as much as 23 percent percent below 1990 levels, depending on what everyone else does.
- South Africa and Indonesia will probably throw their hats into the ring soon.

Tristan February 8, 2010 at 6:45 pm

I think a fundamentally different approach to energy, heating, and transportation are the best shot we have at the real change required. If we can beat the owners of CO2 heavy industry into submission through nationalization, there is no limit to how much we can reduce Co2 emissions. Technology is not a problem – the problem is who controls capital, and which interests are represented by state power.

The dogma that private industry is a more efficient creator of wealth than co-operative or national ownership is what needs to die in order to, and as a result of, the march towards carbon neutrality.

Milan February 9, 2010 at 3:35 pm

But our national leadership is probably far keener on fossil fuels than industry in general is. Given the degree to which governments in North America have been captured by the coal, oil, and gas sectors, it seems awfully unlikely that nationalization would lead to reduced emissions.

Indeed, nationalized fossil fuel companies tend to get turned into convenient cash cows.

. February 12, 2010 at 11:21 am

“Recently, I was having a conversation with one of the country’s most prominent campaigners on climate change. He’d been talking about what could realistically be done to prevent further emissions. He’d made a convincing case that, technologically at least, it would be possible to make the necessary transfers from carbon heavy technologies to renewables within the timeframe needed to prevent disastrous global warming. What was frustrating, he said, was the unwillingness of governments, and perhaps people in general, to make the necessary changes.

We were both a bit tipsy, so I asked him to be honest with me. What chance did we really have preventing disastrous climate change, I asked. Being realistic – being honest, how likely was it? After making me promise not to take his answer outside of the room, he told me: about 5%, he said. If we’re lucky.

Technically, I suppose I have now broken that promise, but since I’m not naming him, I don’t expect he’ll mind. The point is not this one person’s opinion in any case, because it’s an opinion I’ve actually heard enunciated by other climate change campaigners I know – and as an environmentalist of 15 years standing myself, I know quite a few. Pretty much all of them, if you get them alone in a room and perhaps give them a glass or two of wine, would admit to pretty much the same thing. The technology exists, perhaps, but the political will and the economic reality doesn’t. That reality dictates that stopping climate change is nigh on impossible.

This is my impression too, so I’d like to make a controversial suggestion: that climate change campaigners themselves are in denial. Denial of how much good they can do. Denial of how much difference their actions will make. Denial of how much doodoo we are really in.

. September 21, 2010 at 1:01 pm

“Where does this leave us? How should we respond to the reality we have tried not see: that in 18 years of promise and bluster nothing has happened? Environmentalists tend to blame themselves for these failures. Perhaps we should have made people feel better about their lives. Or worse. Perhaps we should have done more to foster hope. Or despair. Perhaps we were too fixated on grand visions. Or techno-fixes. Perhaps we got too close to business. Or not close enough. The truth is that there is not and never was a strategy certain of success, as the powers ranged against us have always been stronger than we are.

Greens are a puny force, by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don’t want to see. To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power, acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won’t. They weren’t ever going to do so. So what do we do now?

I don’t know. These failures have exposed not only familiar political problems, but deep-rooted human weakness. All I know is that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialise and start facing a political reality we’ve sought to avoid. The conversation starts here. “

Milan February 14, 2011 at 6:11 pm

I rarely find myself unable to find news stories to add to this particular thread…

Here are a few from today:

Ontario declares moratorium on off-shore wind farms

British envoy to set new tone in climate change talks with Canada

Why don’t Americans believe in global warming?

Mark February 14, 2011 at 7:11 pm

The item on the “health concerns” about off shore wind farms defies belief.

. February 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm

When not-in-my-backyard groups fight to kill a garbage dump or a gravel pit, it is at least possible to see where they are coming from. When they kill something like an offshore wind farm, designed expressly to help the environment, things are getting weird.

Last week, the government of Ontario quietly announced it was placing a moratorium on building wind farms in the Great Lakes. Well-organized residents groups have campaigned tirelessly against the idea. The transparently political decision, taken just months before a provincial election, douses Toronto Hydro’s hopes of erecting a complex of wind turbines off the Scarborough Bluffs.

The fact is that windmills are a safe and clean way of generating electricity (though whether they are a cost-effective way is another question). A number of studies have debunked the idea that they harm human health. Last year Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health found that, although some people near windmills complain of headaches or insomnia, the scientific evidence does not show a link “between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.” An Australian-government study last July came to the same conclusion: “There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms.”

Offshore wind farms have been running for 20 years in Europe, which has 39 of them from Belgium to Denmark to Britain. Studies have shown minimal effects on bird and marine life.

If no one has studied whether wind farms might pollute the water of freshwater lakes, it may be because the idea is plain silly. Wind turbines, like piers, are usually built on piles driven into the lake bed. After that, they just sit there spinning.

. April 28, 2011 at 5:18 pm

“Yet today, environmental efforts to address climate change and build a green economy lie in ruins. The United States Congress this summer once again rejected climate legislation that even had it succeeded would have had virtually no impact upon U.S. carbon emissions over the coming decade. The magnitude and consequence of this defeat are poorly understood outside of Washington. Greens had the best opportunity in a generation — a Democratic White House and large Democratic majorities in Congress. But they banked everything on a single bill and walked away with nothing — or rather worse than nothing, since today environmental credibility with lawmakers of both parties is today at an all-time low.
 
Meanwhile, green stimulus investments ended up creating very few jobs. Those that it did create were low-wage and temporary custodial jobs — not the high-wage manufacturing jobs that created the black middle-class after World War II. And today, the clean tech sector– the darling of high tech VC’s at the height of the green bubble– is in a state of collapse as stimulus funds expire, large public deficits threaten clean energy subsidies both here and abroad, and Wall Street firms short clean tech stocks.
 
The picture is no less grim internationally. Australia has abandoned efforts to cap its emissions. Japan announced last month that it would, under no circumstances, agree to further emissions reduction commitments under the auspices of the Kyoto Accord. The European Union will meet its Kyoto commitments thanks to the collapse of Eastern Bloc economies in the early 90′s and the collapse of the global economy in 2008, not through public policy efforts to decarbonize its economy. And the collapse of diplomatic efforts to negotiate legally binding emissions caps, first in Copenhagen and again in Cancun, has set the international process back to where it started in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.”
 
http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2011/02/the_long_death_of_environmenta.shtml

. September 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm

UN climate talks

Pretty basic

Diplomacy ahead of the UN climate conference in Durban augurs little progress

NEVER has the UN’s Kyoto protocol looked sorrier. In 2012 the five-year “commitment period” it brought into being—in which developed countries took on legally binding responsibilities to cut their industrial greenhouse-gas emissions against 1990 levels—will end. Already Japan, Russia and Canada have refused to repeat the exercise. America was never part of it. Of the important rich countries, only the Europeans, responsible for around 13% of global emissions, will consider a second go. If cutting global carbon emissions was its aim, the UN scheme has failed.

Yet it refuses to die. A UN climate conference will be held in Durban at the end of November, and the protocol’s future will dominate it. This was stressed in a recent statement from several powerful developing countries—Brazil, South Africa, India and China—who have formed a block called the “BASIC Group”. At a meeting in Brazil on August 26th-27th, “agreeing on the second commitment period” was apparently the main issue they discussed. It was hardly likely, they noted sharply, that a country would leave the Kyoto protocol because it wished to cut emissions faster.

. September 27, 2011 at 9:14 pm

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

Douglas Adams – Wikiquote

. November 4, 2011 at 11:48 am

The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming.

The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.

“The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing,” said John Reilly, co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

The world pumped about 564 million more tons (512 million metric tons) of carbon into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009. That’s an increase of 6 percent. That amount of extra pollution eclipses the individual emissions of all but three countries — China, the United States and India, the world’s top producers of greenhouse gases.

. November 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm

The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record in 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated. A chart accompanying the study shows the breakdown by country. The new figures mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago. It is a ‘monster’ increase that is unheard of, said Gregg Marland, a professor of geology at Appalachian State University, who has helped calculate Department of Energy figures in the past. The question now among scientists is whether the future is the IPCC’s worst case scenario or something more extreme.

. December 4, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded
By JUSTIN GILLIS
Published: December 4, 2011

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery.

Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.

The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.

. May 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Carbon Emissions Reached Record Levels in 2011, Report Says

Global carbon dioxide emissions reached record levels in 2011, driven largely by a 9.3-percent increase in Chinese emissions, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). According to preliminary estimates, worldwide carbon emissions climbed to 31.6 gigatonnes in 2011, a 3.2-percent increase from 2010. India’s emissions rose by 8.7 percent, passing Russia to become the world’s fourth-biggest emitter (behind China, the U.S., and the European Union). Such increases offset a reduction in emissions in the EU and the U.S., where a sluggish economy and an increased shift from coal to natural gas contributed to a 1.7-percent decline in carbon emissions. “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two degrees Celsius trajectory is about to close,” said Fatih Birol, IEA’s chief economist, citing concerns among scientists that emissions must begin being significantly reduced by 2020 to prevent potentially destabilizing temperature increases of more than 2 degrees C. According to the report, the burning of coal accounted for 45 percent of total energy-related carbon emissions, followed by oil (35 percent) and natural gas (20 percent).

. June 2, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Climate change: Carbon dioxide emissions reach record high

Emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide reached an all-time high last year, further reducing the chances that the world could avoid a dangerous rise in global average temperature by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency, the energy analysis group for the world’s most industrialized states.

Global emissions of carbon-dioxide, or CO2, from fossil-fuel combustion hit a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes in 2011, according to the IEA’s preliminary estimates, an increase of 1 Gt, or 3.2% from 2010.

The burning of coal accounted for 45% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil (35%) and natural gas (20%).

According to the vast majority of climatologists, the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of industrialization over the last 150 years has led to an increase in global average temperature by about 1 degree Celsius.

. June 4, 2012 at 6:57 pm

“First the bad news from the International Energy Agency (IEA). Thanks to a huge jump in Chinese emissions, “global carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel combustion reached a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2011.

“The worse news is that, “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close,” according to IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol. Why does that matter? As Reuters reported:”

. June 12, 2012 at 10:03 pm

The climate numbers are downright discouraging. The world pumped 22.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 1990, the baseline year under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. By 2010 that amount had increased roughly 45% to 33 billion tonnes. Carbon dioxide emissions skyrocketed by more than 5% in 2010 alone, marking the fastest growth in more than two decades as the global economy recovered from its slump. And despite constant deliberations under the convention, the overall growth rate of global emissions hasn’t changed much since 1970 (see ‘Report card: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’).

“Plausibly we are a little better off than if we didn’t have all of this diplomacy,” says David Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego. “But the evidence is hard to find.”

Ratified by 194 countries plus the European Commission, the treaty sought to stabilize emissions at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. Although there were no specific targets, wealthy countries agreed to take the lead and help poor countries with monetary and technological aid. In 1997, negotiators followed up with the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005 and committed industrialized countries to reduce their collective emissions of all greenhouse gases by 5.2% (compared with 1990) by 2012.

Overall, industrialized countries are on track to surpass the Kyoto goal with a reduction of some 7%, but this is largely due to the demise of the Soviet Union and its inefficient factories, as well as to the industrial slump caused by the recent economic crisis, which is starting to reverse. The United States, the developed world’s largest greenhouse-gas producer, never ratified the protocol and increased its greenhouse-gas output by 11% between 1990 and 2010. In the meantime, developing countries more than doubled their emissions, increasing their share of the global total from 29% to 54%.

In spite of the failure to rein in emissions, the climate treaty has performed better on many lesser goals. The international process it spawned encouraged investment in climate science and provided a venue for scientists and policy experts to showcase their work. Periodic scientific reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underpinned each major round of treaty talks. The negotiations also helped to raise awareness of climate change across the globe. Governments began working on climate adaptation, sustainable agriculture and reducing tropical deforestation, and Kyoto sparked experimentation with carbon markets and new ways of transferring money and technology to poor countries.

But on the core challenge of overhauling the global energy industry and reducing emissions, the questions remain the same 20 years later: who must do what and who pays?

The original treaty introduced the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, with a heavier burden on wealthier countries, historically responsible for the largest share of greenhouse-gas emissions. That concept was put into practice through the Kyoto Protocol, when industrialized countries agreed to reduce emissions and provide aid to developing countries, which took on no formal obligations. But as the world changed and the proportion of emissions increasingly shifted towards developing countries, the treaty remained static.

The result has been a prolonged stand-off, with poor nations demanding that their wealthy neighbours do more and industrialized countries increasingly concerned about skyrocketing emissions among the rapidly emerging economies. In particular, the United States baulked at the idea of moving forward without China, which is now the world’s largest emitter, whereas China cited its lower per-capita emissions in questioning whether the United States is doing enough. Negotiators wrestled with those issues at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, where China, Brazil, South Africa and other major developing countries promised for the first time to reduce emissions. Last December in Durban, South Africa, countries agreed to negotiate a new global climate treaty by 2015 that would include formal commitments from both developed and developing countries.

Climate negotiators will gather in Doha, Qatar, in November to begin the process of designing that new treaty, but scepticism remains. “The only way we are going to achieve significant emissions reductions is through technology,” says Barry Brook, director of climate-change research at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute in Australia. The fundamental barrier is the cost of clean-energy alternatives, he says. “A lot of this can’t be driven by an international process.”

Some argue that the climate talks might be more fruitful if the focus were on securing agreement within groups of major economic powers such as the G20, which is responsible for more than 80% of global emissions. But even if the cacophony of voices in the UN negotiations makes progress difficult, many believe that the process has helped to inspire countries, local governments and even corporations to tackle the issue of climate change in a more serious way.

“What we have today is nowhere near what the science says we need,” says Manish Bapna, acting president of the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. “But is it closer than we would have been in the absence of climate negotiations? I would say the answer is an unequivocal yes.”

http://www.nature.com/news/earth-summit-rio-report-card-1.10764

. July 5, 2012 at 11:49 pm

IT SEEMED to Elinor Ostrom that the world contained a large body of common sense. People, left to themselves, would sort out rational ways of surviving and getting along. Although the world’s arable land, forests, fresh water and fisheries were all finite, it was possible to share them without depleting them and to care for them without fighting. While others wrote gloomily of the tragedy of the commons, seeing only overfishing and overfarming in a free-for-all of greed, Mrs Ostrom, with her loud laugh and louder tops, cut a cheery and contrarian figure.

Years of fieldwork, by herself and others, had shown her that humans were not trapped and helpless amid diminishing supplies. She had looked at forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, mountain villages in Switzerland and Japan, fisheries in Maine and Indonesia. She had even, as part of her PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the water wars and pumping races going on in the 1950s in her own dry backyard.

All these cases had taught her that, over time, human beings tended to draw up sensible rules for the use of common-pool resources. Neighbours set boundaries and assigned shares, with each individual taking it in turn to use water, or to graze cows on a certain meadow. Common tasks, such as clearing canals or cutting timber, were done together at a certain time. Monitors watched out for rule-breakers, fining or eventually excluding them. The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked well for centuries.

Best of all, they were not imposed from above. Mrs Ostrom put no faith in governments, nor in large conservation schemes paid for with aid money and crawling with concrete-bearing engineers. “Polycentrism” was her ideal. Caring for the commons had to be a multiple task, organised from the ground up and shaped to cultural norms. It had to be discussed face to face, and based on trust. Mrs Ostrom, besides poring over satellite data and quizzing lobstermen herself, enjoyed employing game theory to try to predict the behaviour of people faced with limited resources. In her Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at the University of Indiana—set up with her husband Vincent, a political scientist, in 1973—her students were given shares in a notional commons. When they simply discussed what they should do before they did it, their rate of return from their “investments” more than doubled.

. July 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm

American novelist Kurt Vonnegut mused that if aliens or angels were to visit Earth in 100 years and find us gone, perhaps the epitaph we ought to leave for them to read should be, “We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard … and too damned cheap.”

. August 24, 2012 at 3:09 pm

All these cases had taught her that, over time, human beings tended to draw up sensible rules for the use of common-pool resources. Neighbours set boundaries and assigned shares, with each individual taking it in turn to use water, or to graze cows on a certain meadow. Common tasks, such as clearing canals or cutting timber, were done together at a certain time. Monitors watched out for rule-breakers, fining or eventually excluding them. The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked well for centuries.

Best of all, they were not imposed from above. Mrs Ostrom put no faith in governments, nor in large conservation schemes paid for with aid money and crawling with concrete-bearing engineers. “Polycentrism” was her ideal. Caring for the commons had to be a multiple task, organised from the ground up and shaped to cultural norms. It had to be discussed face to face, and based on trust. Mrs Ostrom, besides poring over satellite data and quizzing lobstermen herself, enjoyed employing game theory to try to predict the behaviour of people faced with limited resources. In her Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at the University of Indiana—set up with her husband Vincent, a political scientist, in 1973—her students were given shares in a notional commons. When they simply discussed what they should do before they did it, their rate of return from their “investments” more than doubled.

. August 24, 2012 at 3:38 pm

A new book by Dan Ariely, “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty”, may reinvigorate the discussion. Mr Ariely is a social psychologist who has spent years studying cheating. He also teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. He has no time for the usual, lazy assumptions. He contends that the vast majority of people are prone to cheating. He also thinks they are more willing to cheat on other people’s behalf than their own. People routinely struggle with two opposing emotions. They view themselves as honourable. But they also want to enjoy the benefits of a little cheating, especially if it reinforces their belief that they are a bit more intelligent or popular than they really are. They reconcile these two emotions by fudging—adding a few points to a self-administered IQ test, for example, or forgetting to put a few coins in an honesty box.

The amount of fudging that goes on depends on the circumstances. People are more likely to lie or cheat if others are lying or cheating, or if a member of another social group (such as a student wearing a sweatshirt from a rival university) visibly flouts the rules. They are more likely to lie and cheat if they are in a foreign country rather than at home. Or if they are using digital rather than real money. Or even if they are knowingly wearing fake rather than real Gucci sunglasses. They are more likely to lie and cheat if they have been stiffed by the victim of their misbehaviour—companies that keep customers in voicemail hell are frequent victims. And people are more likely to break their own rules if they have spent the day resisting temptation: dieters often slip after a day of self-denial, for example.

. November 22, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Resuscitation hopes dim for expiring Kyoto climate treaty

(Reuters) – Fifteen years ago, fears about man-made climate change were enough to bind most of the industrialized world into a treaty that was flawed but at least seemed to cement the principle that greenhouse gases must be cut.

Yet now – with levels of those gases much higher and climate change more evident in extreme weather – economic slowdown and arguments over who should pay have all but killed any chance of a meaningful extension to the expiring Kyoto Protocol.

Almost 200 nations meet in Doha, Qatar, from November 26 to December 7 to at least try. But Russia, Japan and Canada, major economies that signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, have already said they will not sign up to emissions cuts beyond December 31.

. July 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. ”

-Saul Bellow

. December 23, 2013 at 3:52 pm

America’s consumption of oil rose in November to the highest level in five years, according to the International Energy Agency. Consequently, the IEA slightly raised its estimate of global oil demand next year, to 92.4m barrels a day.

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