Right about obstacles, wrong about consequences

2009-09-08

in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment, Writing

Wasp on a purple spherical flower, Vermont

I was recently reminded of a common but worrisome mental phenomenon, when it comes to how people react psychologically to the challenge of climate change. They have a strong understanding of the basic political dynamics at work – short term versus long term, special interests versus the general interest, money talks, etc – but lack an appreciation for just how bad unmitigated climate change would be. They are cynical about the prospects for an appropriate political response, but not seized with the importance of producing one despite the difficulties.

As mentioned before, the business-as-usual case is 5.5°C to 7.1°C of temperature increase by 2100, with more to follow. Accompanying this would be ocean acidification, changes in precipitation patterns, and other impacts. This is a more significant difference than exists between our present climate and that of the last ice age, when much of North America was covered with kilometres of ice. In the somewhat understated language typical of scientists, the head of the Met Office has said that warming of this scale would “lead to significant risks of severe and irreversible impacts.” That isn’t a worst-case scenario, but rather their best guess about where we will end up unless we change course. It should also be noted that there are positive feedbacks not incorporated into models such as that of the Hadley Centre: notable among them methane from permafrost. With such feedbacks factored in, a significantly worse business-as-usual warming profile is possible.

In practical terms, it is challenging to converse with people who have this pair of outlooks. Their cynicism about politics is largely justified, and they are right to see climate change as a problem of unprecedented complexity and difficulty. Trying to make them aware of just how dangerous climate change could be is challenging, because it is easy to come off sounding like you are exaggerating things. People just aren’t psychologically prepared to accept what 5°C of warming could plausible do to human civilization, even within what are now rich states.

What communication strategies have the most promise for getting people to accept the dangerousness of climate change, and subsequently the need to push hard against the political status quo, so as to produce timely change? This isn’t an issue where we can roll over and let special interest politics win. The future of the human race is quite literally at stake.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

. September 8, 2009 at 4:44 pm

n my original climateethics.org post, I wrote: “If the IPCC had explicitly considered in AR4 the risks of higher temperatures outside the boundary of a 90 percent confidence level, dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, and non–linear responses to drivers of climate change this would have enabled public policy makers to be more effective in formulating responses to climate change under conditions of scientific uncertainty. Further, had IPCC done so this might have contributed to implementing the precautionary principle in responding to risks from a globally changing climate,” and, therefore, helped to address the problem of urgency.

In my view, the recent scientific facts I have briefly described support the need for greater urgency to combat global climate change, especially by the United States and other developed nations that have contributed disproportionately to both the magnitude and increasing rate of global climate change. Having said this, I see few if any positive signs that the United States in particular or more generally many developed nations are taking or will take sufficient and timely actions to address the urgency of the global climate change problem. For example, the recent “American Clean Energy and Security Act” (HR 2454, 26 June 2009) passed by the US House of Representatives is a weak bill insofar as mitigating the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. The Act called for only a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 2005 levels and, hence, is far below IPCC’s reduction recommendations. Further, the prospects for the US Senate passing strong climate change legislation do not seem promising. Added to this situation is the fact that G8 statements state that member nations “will try (italics mine) to limit global warming to 2 C above pre–industrial levels” and do not contain binding or other recommendations for short–term emissions reductions (Guardian 2008). Given the lack of urgent action to combat global climate change, it could be argued that those involved in environmental ethics might wish to add an additional focus to their on–going studies and analyses that might (hopefully) better promote the urgency for action. If this is the case: What is to be done?

With respect to global climate change problems the question I now grapple with is: Is traditional ethical analysis of the problems sufficiently influential to public policy and decision–makers given the urgency to act? It seems to me the ethical foundation for mitigating global climate change is well established. But if these foundations are not influencing national and international policy and decisions to deal with the urgency of the problems, then perhaps those involved in environmental ethics should consider helping to provide an ethical defense of nonviolent civil disobedience to better promote policies to combat global climate change. Again, I make this suggestion knowing that, in part, progress on racial desegregation in the southern US, progress on equality for women, and progress to end the war in Viet Nam was furthered by nonviolent civil disobedience.

To the extent my perception that there is slow progress by developed nations in taking urgent action actions to combat global climate change is correct, and given the view that traditional academic analysis of the ethics of global climate change is not as effective as we might hope, my questions to the community of environmental ethicists are: (1)Is the time for civil disobedience now? (2)What ethical justification, if any, can environmental ethicists provide for civil disobedience to combat global climate change? (3)If the consensus of environmental ethicists is against justification of nonviolent civil disobedience, what alternative is there that might be more immediately effective than current approaches?

R.K. September 9, 2009 at 11:52 am

What communication strategies have the most promise for getting people to accept the dangerousness of climate change, and subsequently the need to push hard against the political status quo, so as to produce timely change?

Probably the only thing that will convince most people is actually seeing the negative consequences of warming building up. We just have to hope that it won’t be too late to stop, at that point.

Milan September 9, 2009 at 12:08 pm

We cannot assume that effects clear and massive enough to get through to the general public will emerge in time, especially when there is a denial industry happy to jump on anyone who points out links between climate change and storms or wildfires.

We need ways of impressing the seriousness of climate change upon citizens at large, without having to wait for it to actually happen. Al Gore’s film did a good introductory job of this.

. September 11, 2009 at 9:47 am

UK climate scepticism more common
By Sudeep Chand
Science reporter

The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey.

Twice as many people now agree that “claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated”.

Four in 10 believe that many leading experts still question the evidence. One in five are “hard-line sceptics”.

The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.

The results were announced at the British Science Festival in Guildford by Cardiff’s Lorraine Whitmarsh.

A questionnaire survey was filled in by 551 people, from a range of ages and backgrounds, between September and November last year.

Although the findings are similar to those of other UK surveys, this is the first to show that people may be becoming “tired” of claims surrounding climate change.

Milan September 11, 2009 at 9:52 am

People can be so depressing. The above reminds me of this:

Well, I Guess That Genocide In Sudan Must’ve Worked Itself Out On Its Own

“I was pretty worried a year or so ago when the news came out that thousands of people had been indiscriminately slaughtered in Darfur. It was unsettling to hear that citizens of one ethnicity (Arab, maybe?) were systematically mass-murdering the population of some other ethnicity (Was it the Ganjaweeds? It’s been so long since I’ve read their names!) But lately, the main stories in the news seem to be about Deep Throat, the new summer blockbusters, and something about stem cells. Since I’m sure I would have remembered if the U.S. had intervened in some way to stop it, I can only assume that the whole genocide-in-Darfur thing has somehow worked itself out…”

. September 11, 2009 at 11:47 am

FESTERING conflicts in faraway places tend to follow a familiar trajectory. At first there is worldwide moral outrage; next, earnest promises that “something must be done”; then, when rapid solutions fail to work, bafflement and finally a sense of hapless resignation. That sequence is common in Africa: think of Somalia and Congo. Now there is a danger that the benighted region of Darfur, in western Sudan, may join the list of seemingly insoluble problems.

Milan September 11, 2009 at 11:48 am

The same pattern definitely holds for climate policy.

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