What’s possible?


in Canada, Economics, The environment

Right now, the majority of educated Canadians seem to believe that one or both of the following is impossible:

  1. For the world as a whole to reach carbon neutrality – the state where net greenhouse gas emissions are zero – before 2100
  2. For the global economy to be restructured to run on forms of energy that are zero-carbon and renewable

And yet, both of these intertwined changes seem to be necessary if we are to avoid dangerous or catastrophic climate change.

My question to readers is: what would make the majority of people in Canada and around the world accept those two situations as at least possible? That is a necessary prerequisite to them being seen as desirable and, ultimately, necessary.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan October 1, 2010 at 9:35 am

Arguably, we are better off not giving the general public the whole pill to swallow now. Most people already accept that emissions need to be cut. Informing them of just how far might serve to paralyze, rather than galvanize, them.

Tristan October 1, 2010 at 9:44 am

Arguably, the logic which states a small knowledge elite should know the truth while the dumb and lumbering general public is shielded from reality by a nobel lie is archaic, anachronistic, and exactly what brought us to the point were are at today.

Milan October 1, 2010 at 9:53 am

If you believe that, the impetus to find ways to communicate the reality of the situation is even stronger. The basic message of BuryCoal is not yet commonly understood.

Milan October 1, 2010 at 10:44 am

Also, there is a big difference between a ‘noble lie’ and what I was talking about in my first comment.

It is one thing to decide what you want to have happen, then develop a false story that convinces the general public to do it.

It is something entirely different to avoid going out of your way to explain a non-secret idea that the general public does not respond well to. Nobody is concealing the fact that stopping anthropogenic climate change requires reducing net human greenhouse has emissions to zero. That being said, it may be a poor strategy to focus on that fact. We might have more success encouraging more incremental actions: replacing coal with natural gas, as a transitional technology; building more nuclear power; improving the efficiency of vehicles and buildings; etc.

Tristan October 1, 2010 at 7:29 pm

” We might have more success encouraging more incremental actions: replacing coal with natural gas, as a transitional technology; building more nuclear power; improving the efficiency of vehicles and buildings; etc.”

The problem with your analysis is you think neutrally about the power required to enforce changes, and finely about the difficulty these changes present given the current power structures. It is very difficult, given current structures of power, to make any of the necessary changes. So, you could try to fight for slighter changes, which probably won’t be enough, and place this under the banner of “Being reasonable”. Or you could recognize that the current structures which make the rational policies unfeasible are as backwards as the Catholic Church or Stalinist Russia, and begin organizing real solutions to throw out not just the bums, but the castle walls which keep bums in power.

Tristan October 3, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Do you think there is a relation between the inability of the world (and mostly a few superpowers like the US and China) to come to an agreement on climate change, and the persistence of imperialism and empire-building as the mainstream view of national interest and security in the world today? Or, are you going to say “climate change is too important, we can’t afford to worry about imperialism”. But you see, you don’t get to say that unless you can genuinely say that agression does not undermine attempts for different states to work together towards a common goal of not exterminating the species.

We might seriously ask – why should a state co-operate with the US on the goal of not exterminating the species, if the US will commit and/or support acts of agression against that state if they elect a government which the US does not approve of?

Yaakov October 4, 2010 at 8:42 am

Are both of those goals actually feasible? I’m inclined to say yes: technologically, 90 years is quite a long time; the second goal is not as quantifiable but seems to be built around a real plan involving (at least at first) technology that is currently available.

My problem with seeing the first as an achievable goal is that I don’t think we know what that future looks like. This is not to say that we should be wary of going down that path lest…but more that (as far as I can tell) it is technologically not possible given what we are capable of today. Clearly, innovation and dedication to the problem can give us some solutions in the future that we don’t currently have, but the idea of complete, global carbon neutrality seems pretty far off.

I’d have to say that with regard to the second goal, people will be willing to go along if you state it outright from the beginning. The problem with the first goal is that I think most people really don’t believe that there is any sort of plan for getting there. If there really are concrete, feasible plans, then this is the time for a massive public information campaign. However, if the first goal is not something that anyone can really feasibly map out, it is probably better to approach it as a desired end, but with more currently feasible checkpoints as the actual targets. Once the technology and an overall plan for how to get from the current situation to a truly carbon-neutral future is more or less worked out, it can be promoted more honestly and more convincingly.

PS–What I mean by “technologically feasible” is that we have the technology to both a) make carbon-neutral infrastructure and machinery for all our needs in some cases and b) use these methods globally to actually achieve zero emissions. A) is probably close to currently feasible, and there are designs being kicked around that would solve many of the currently unsolved problems in that regard. A lot of this only works on a relatively small scale, however, and without scaling down the world (which would pretty much mean genocide, and would therefore be completely unacceptable), it’s hard to imagine spreading the carbon-neutral lifestyle to the entire globe. For this reason, I believe that it should be the true goal of the major Western nations to develop carbon-negative economies–considering that most of the emissions from the past century originate in North America, Europe and northern Asia, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to posit that these areas should lead the world in developing ways to counteract carbon-emitting technology by fixing carbon directly from the atmosphere. This, however, seems to be a goal that is quite elusive at the moment, and is essentially where I lose faith with stating a carbon-neutral globe as a goal in any defined time-frame.

alena October 4, 2010 at 9:47 am

Thank you Yaakov for your well thought out and expressed arguments. I agree with you that the problem is clearer than the solution and it is difficult to mobilize people of the world to march united towards a carbon-neutral globe without a clearly defined direction. Conflicting political and economic interests keep muddying the waters, even though there are some clear ways that we could improve the trend if it was designated top priority status. Educating the public is clearly of upmost importance.

R.K. October 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Few people have the time or inclination to do original research on climate change. Rather, they believe what they hear from people who they trust. That’s one reason why it is so problematic that many meteorologists are climate change deniers. Many people in the general public think of them as legitimate experts on the subject.

. October 4, 2010 at 6:07 pm


Climate change – rhetoric and urgency
October 15, 2008

“[U]nless we reach a point where we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, 80 per cent of the world’s species will become extinct, and human civilization as we know it will be destroyed, by the end of this century.”

Andrew Weaver

. October 15, 2010 at 11:32 am

“Overall, we found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. In this assessment, only 8 percent of Americans have knowledge equivalent to an A or B, 40 percent would receive a C or D, and 52 percent would get an F. The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society. For example, only:

* 57% know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat;
* 50% of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities;
* 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface;
* 25% have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification.

Meanwhile, large majorities incorrectly thinkthat the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions. “

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