Alcoholic analogies to climate change

2008-12-04

in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Two critical aspects of the problem of climate change can be well understood by means of alcohol-based analogy: the time lag between emissions and climatic consequences and the one-off nature of our decisions.

The last few decades have seen a surge in global greenhouse gas emissions. Due to lags in the climate system, the effects of those gasses are not yet felt, whether in terms of temperature or other climatic phenomena. It is as though we have started doing shots of vodka every thirty seconds. Even after the tenth shot, it is entirely possible that you are feeling lucid. You can talk, walk around, and drink more vodka. If you keep drinking at such a rapid pace until the point where you really feel the effects of the first shots, you have a whole mass of additional (and probably rather unpleasant) impacts still to come.

The reason this is so dangerous is that we only get one chance to decide when to stop drinking. Most people probably have a few experiences of youthful exuberance and realize they need to take into account the anticipated consequences of drinks, rather than just keep drinking until they cannot do so any longer. There is scope to learn from experience. As with global thermonuclear war, climate change offers no opportunities to learn by experience. We have one planet and, by extension, one timeline for greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations. If we are going to stop before we go too far, we are going to need the wisdom to anticipate consequences (as the IPCC and other scientific bodies have already done) as well as the will and good judgment to heed that advice.

The final issue to bear in mind is that of where the costs fall. The danger of drinking yourself to death is one that each individual engages with directly. By contrast, most of the dangers associated with climate change are inadvertently borne by those in future generations. Continuing to emit greenhouse gasses is thus somewhat equivalent to drinking while pregnant. While some of the health consequences might be borne by the drinker, most will be borne by the next generation and, in turn, by those who follow.

There are actually a couple of additional valid ways in which this analogy can be extended. One is to appreciating the difference between stocks and flows. Cutting annual emissions is like reducing how much vodka is in each shot. When emissions are rising, each shot is bigger. When emissions are falling, successive shots are smaller. Nonetheless, even small shots still increase your blood alcohol level. Right now, rising global emissions mean the planet is downing a bigger shot of greenhouse gasses every year. Stopping that growth is the first step, but it is no more of an adequate response in the long term than capping the size of the shots being taken at regular intervals.

A related extension has to do with carbon sinks. In this analogy, they are akin to your liver. They can absorb a certain quantity of greenhouse gasses before they fail. After that point, the further climatic effects of emissions are unmitigated. In the period when your liver is still functional, you can still drink small shots every thirty seconds. Eventually, however, you need to cut your intake/emissions to zero, before your liver/sinks fail.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. December 4, 2008 at 10:33 am

These analogies are decent, but there are big differences between drinking alcohol and emitting CO2 that are important to the moral issues here.

First, drinking alcohol is much more voluntary than emitting CO2. Nobody needs to do it. By contrast, there is no way to produce even the rudiments of life without emitting carbon dioxide (though people using only biomass and not causing net deforestation would have zero net emissions).

Second, the consequences of drinking alcohol are related to the reasons for drinking. While the long-term consequences may be unwanted (liver disease, etc), the intoxicating effect is the whole point of the act. The point of burning fossil fuels, by contrast, is to get the energy. It is akin to having beer for dinner, even though you do not want the effect of the alcohol, because you have no other food available.

Emily December 4, 2008 at 2:25 pm

I think your analogy is a good way of thinking of climate change consequences in relatable terms, but I think R.K. has a good point too.

It’s kind of like we have all been born crack babies, already addicted to using non-renewable carbon emitting resources. The analogy of addiction is a good one because it also captures the psychological nature of thinking about our contribution climate change: “I don’t want to continue doing this, but I have to. I have no choice.”

The reality is that we always have the choice to make more sound decisions, but we are socially conditioned in an environment that teaches us environmental exploitation is a right, and that resources are limitless.

Milan December 4, 2008 at 2:38 pm

I agree that the analogies are imprecise, and that there are morally important distinctions between alcohol consumption and carbon emissions.

The bit of the analogy I like best is the part about still being sober right after pounding ten or fifteen shots of vodka. It provides a way of understanding how we could be storing up big problems for the future, without seeing big effects now.

First, drinking alcohol is much more voluntary than emitting CO2.

True, though one could voluntarily reduce one’s CO2 emissions dramatically. It is a matter of reducing energy use, switching as much as possible to low- or zero-carbon sources of energy, and helping to enhance sinks.

Second, the consequences of drinking alcohol are related to the reasons for drinking.

Good point. That being said, a lot of the activities that are made possible by fossil fuels would have seemed gratuitous to people who lived in previous generations. People living in future generations where fossil fuels have run out or are sharply restricted for environmental reasons might feel likewise.

The reality is that we always have the choice to make more sound decisions, but we are socially conditioned in an environment that teaches us environmental exploitation is a right, and that resources are limitless.

How much psychological change we need to undergo is an interesting subject, and issue for ongoing debate. Personally, I don’t have much hope for environmental change through consciousness raising. Even when people are acutely aware of the environmental harm they are causing, they are likely to continue doing it. Instead, we need to create a society with infrastructure and incentives that minimize emissions.

It is only when the most selfish and environmentally-indifferent individuals are nonetheless living low-carbon lives that we will have successfully dealt with the problem of climate change.

R.K. December 4, 2008 at 4:04 pm

By the time anyone in a western society is grown up enough to go live ‘off the grid’ they will already have emitted a lot of carbon.

The value of your metaphors is more in explanation than in prescription. The vodka analogy makes it clear that reducing emissions isn’t enough to stabilize the situation.

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