In the absence of real political solutions to climate change, Stephen Gardiner argues that: “we are susceptible to proposals for action that do not respond to the real problem. This provides a good explanation of what has gone wrong in the last two decades of climate policy, from Rio to Kyoto to Copenhagen. However, the form of such “shadow solutions” is likely to evolve as a the situation deteriorates. Some recent arguments for pursuing geoengineering may represent such an evolution.”

One example from today: Build walls on seafloor to stop glaciers melting, scientists say

Another example was back when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggested we could adapt to climate change by altering our physiology.

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Red tree

2018-09-19

in Photo of the day

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In life generally I am embarrassingly bad at keeping track of people with whom I’ve had only limited interaction. There are many people who I remember visually and may even know something about, but who I cannot name. There are probably even more people who look vaguely familiar, but for whom I couldn’t say if I know them from one place or another.

This all gets exaggerated in the context of working as a teaching assistant. University of Toronto “tutorials” routinely have more than 30 students enrolled, though attendance may be only 50-70% in a given week. For a single class, I will usually have 3-4 tutorials and I sometimes teach as many as three classes at once. Often, courses only last for the fall or the winter term, so I get a new set of students after the winter break.

From the perspective of a student, even if they take a full course load of five courses at a time and every class includes a tutorial, that’s only a maximum of 10 teaching assistants per year, or perhaps 40 during a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, in all but the most active tutorials I will be speaking for a good portion of the time, so every student has reasons for their memory of me to be reinforced. Many of them will also see me in office hours to discuss essay drafts or grades.

From my perspective, during the seven years of my PhD I will probably have an average of two courses at a time with a 50/50 mix of year-long and one-term courses. At three tutorials per course, that’s 270 students per year, many of who I will only see in a minority of tutorials. As a result, there are probably already well over 1,000 students who remember me as a TA, and of those there are probably only 5% or so who participated enough for me to have any kind of clear memory of them and even then it’s probably just a “former student” flag without details about which course, much less what they said, their name, or any personal details about them.

It would be less socially awkward if I could remember at least those basic fields of data about everyone in the large set, but it’s possibly beyond what a reasonable human memory and cognitive capacity can achieve. It’s certainly well beyond what I can achieve, as someone who has routinely worked in groups or offices of 30 people or so in which I knew only a minority of names, even after being involved for months or years. In a way it may even be a good thing. I would prefer if tests and assignments at U of T were marked with student numbers only, not names. Inevitably, seeing a name you remember will subconsciously influence grading (though the impact is hard to predict: do I interpret the work of more involved students more leniently, or do I expect more from them?). I avoid looking at names on documents I am grading and it may be a further protection that even for the majority of students who I am currently teaching their name won’t be more than vaguely familiar to me and not tied to any specific memories of them as a person.

One awkward dimension of all this is the frequent expectation in the syllabus of courses that TAs will grade students for both attendance and participation. If participation is to be assessed by spoken contributions, I don’t think I can track it accurately at the same time as I am trying to facilitate a worthwhile discussion. I buy and distribute name cards to raise the odds that I will be able to identify students, but people don’t always use them consistently and it would be too embarrassing to tell a student months into the year that I have no idea who they are and can they please give me their name for my participation records.

I also question the fairness of grading people based on spoken contributions, since the people who feel empowered to speak may just be the most extroverted, confident, and privileged. Based on experience I can say conclusively that the most talkative aren’t necessarily the best informed or those who contribute the most value to the discussion. Students are also smart enough to game any system, so if they know that I am trying to check people off when they make a substantive contribution to each week’s discussion they know how to do just enough to get a checkmark.

One approach I learned from another TA is to give everyone a 10 minute writing task during each 50 minute tutorial, then rapidly scan that people have actually done it as they are leaving, checking it off against the attendance list. It means sacrificing some discussion time, but it also means that people cannot be entirely tuned out during the tutorial. It’s impossible for me to tell whether a silent person is listening attentively or thinking about something entirely unrelated. Teaching assessments suggest that students don’t find these writing tasks pointless or distasteful.

It would be interesting to try teaching undergraduates at a school that emphasizes teaching more and is willing to constrain tutorials to a size where it’s actually possible to know most students, and where most people will actually speak in any given tutorial. In my ideal world, I would also implement the system we used in graduate tutorials in Oxford, where someone at random is called upon to briefly summarize each reading in 2-3 minutes. It definitely drove me to do the readings then, out of fear of embarrassment. I did try the system at U of T, stressing how the summary can be very brief and how these records will be perfect study notes, but students hated it, complained about it in their teaching assessments, and said that it drove them to not attend class.

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Orientation week is a nice feature of being in school in September. I don’t really remember what happened at UBC / in the Foundations program / at Totem Park residence in 2001, but during my grad orientation at Oxford in 2005 I met my friend Margaret and in my earliest hours at Wadham College I met Nora and Kelly. At U of T so far I have mostly prioritized Massey College orientation events, since I became a junior fellow the same year I began my PhD. This year I have put a bit less emphasis on Massey (being off the JF list, I don’t get invited to most events anyway) and given more attention to the Department of Political Science.

Yesterday evening the department has its start of term party in the Faculty Club. It gave me a chance to ask Peter Russell about the BC Court of Appeals decision on the Trans Mountain pipeline. Firstly, he thought legislation to aid the pipeline’s approval was appropriate and likely, given the political circumstances of the Trudeau government. He clarified that in an ideal world people would share our green sensibilities and no new fossil fuel projects would be going forward, but you can’t get elected in Canada now with such a platform. Secondly, that led to a discussion of whether democracies are capable of solving climate change. It’s especially concerning when you get a radical answer from an 80+ year old emiritus faculty member, but his view was essentially “there are good reasons to think not, and a lot of political theorists and ecologists have gotten into why”.

After the official departmental do, a loose band of us walked a couple of kilometres to what turned out to be a highly interesting informal party associated with GASPS: the Graduate Association of Students of Political Science. I had some great conversations on everything from the world’s ongoing nuclear arms race to sampling methods in field research. Hopefully I will see some of the new people I met again. It’s a bit uncertain because there aren’t many places and circumstances that bring together a large share of U of T’s PhD students. People in the same classes and preparing for the same exams bond, as do people who always work in the same study space, but it’s quite possible to never develop social relations with the broader membership of MA and PhD students in politics.

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Steve Paikin’s show on TVO is a video equivalent to CBC’s The Current, in that they both tackle matters of going political importance, tend to get into the substantive matters involved, and feature hosts that press guests to go beyond sound bites.

The recent segment with author Chris Hedges on American decline – “The Collapse of the American Empire?” – is a good use for half an hour:

They also had a good recent segment on Ontario’s Ford government undoing carbon pricing and much of the pro-climate legacy of the Liberal Wynne government: The Cost of Ford’s Energy Shake-up. He tries to press the anti-carbon pricing panellist to go beyond criticism and offer solutions, but the other panelists are pretty effective in arguing that right wing critics are privately content to do nothing about climate change (the representative spouts some nonsense about how we can just adapt, regardless of the severity).

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Both in the literature on fossil fuel divestment and when speaking with divestment activists the concept or worldview of “climate justice” is prominent. A good example is Jessica Grady-Benson and Brinda Sarathy’s paper “Fossil fuel divestment in US higher education: student-led organising for climate justice“. They contend that climate change is increasingly seen as a social justice issue.

As I understand it, the key features of the “climate justice” perspective are the view that climate change is not a distinguishable issue that can be isolated from others like unjust power differentials, poverty, or racism. That analysis helps produce a program of action that emphasizes intersectionality: the efforts of those in one justice-based struggle to assist those involved in others, even if the immediate connection between say, maternal health in low-income countries and environmental policy in European municipalities or conditions in American prisons, is obscure. The conceptual motivation connects to both networking and political pragmatism, through the hope that social movements can be mutually reinforcing and therefore that alliances between climate change activists and those advocating for racial or economic justice will help everyone achieve their policy goals.

This climate justice terminology is comparatively new. In a post back in 2007 I used the term to refer to the question of the fair international distribution of burdens in addressing climate change: a perspective much more along the lines of institutionalist liberal environmentalism which basically accepts the existing order of the world and seeks to make the institutions that already hold power change their behaviour for the sake of their collective longer-term interests.

The liberal environmentalist account sees problems like climate change as techinical, scientific, and with the potential to be solved within existing institutions. Climate change is an unfortunate accidental product of fossil fuel energy that doesn’t automatically carry any moral lessons beyond that. British Comedian David Mitchell has a ‘soapbox’ talk describing this view succinctly.

One relevant consideration concerns motivation. Even if I accept it intellectually, Mitchell’s portrayal of climate change as an accident that nonetheless obligates a response may lack the emotional heft needed to actually produce a change in behaviour. Another key issue is the need to not only adopt decarbonization policies but to maintain them for long enough (decades) to avoid the worst possible climate change effects. Arguably, this requires a political consensus that extends beyond the left or progressives and, in fact, a political program that demands agreement on every progressive cause risks being alienating and ineffectual rather than a path to solidarity and success.

All these questions are intensely contested, and certainly cannot be resolved in a blog post or subsequent comments. On the one hand, the case that climate change is interwoven with other issues of injustice is highly convincing; it’s because some people are privileged over others that it’s so easy to allow unfettered fossil fuel use for the benefits it provides to the privileged while ignoring the harms it imposes on the marginalized, non-human nature, and future generations. It’s also plausible that the climate change movement needs to forge and maintain strategic alliances to succeed. In the end, we can’t know in advance what will work because we have never faced a problem like this before. We may never have the opportunity to do so again, since a sufficiently bad failure on climate change carries the risk of making all other human political projects moot. As such it seems obligatory to me to open up and maintain multiple paths to success, including those that require reaching beyond comfortable networks of people who broadly agree and solutions that consist of behaviours that we largely see as desirable anyhow. Stopping catastrophic climate change will mean giving up a lot, not only in terms of personal comforts and indulgences, but also in terms of comfortable political associations and worldviews.

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