Hale on why climate stability advocates are often confounded

The combination of uncertainty and low salience, in turn, enables obstructionism, the ability of interests tied to the status quo to maintain their interests. Consider the hurdles of a policy entrepreneur would have to overcome to create and implement a policy addressing a problem with distant effects like climate change. First, that policy entrepreneur would have to herself see value in pursuing an obscure issue, one that is unlikely to garner her a quick win and the associated political benefits. Few will have incentives to pursue such causes. Second, she would have to mobilize a sufficient coalition of interests to be able to influence policy. This would require each of those interests choosing to focus on a distant topic over their more urgent priorities. Third, this interest coalition would need to force the issue onto the broader political agenda, competing for limited space with numerous immediate priorities. Fourth, the coalition would need to somehow overcome, compensate, or neutralize political opponents.

To the extent those opponents are worried about the short-term costs of action, everything that is hard for the long-sighted policy entrepreneur will be easy for them. Opposing long-sighted policy—that is, promoting short-term outcomes—will give them the opportunity for quick wins on issues that are relatively easy to mobilize interests around. And even if the long-term-oriented policy entrepreneur wins a battle, she must preserve and maintain those gains permanently, as opponents will seek to reverse any defeats they face. A one-off victory may be important, but long problems often require sustained policies over time, while it only takes one victory by opponents to block them. The longer a problem’s effects reach into the future, the more friction the policy entrepreneur will face at every stage, and, should she get a win, the more enduring her victories will need to be.

Hale, Thomas. Long Problems: Climate Change and the Challenge of Governing Across Time. Princeton University Press, 2024.

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Humans struggle with allocating losses

Canada seems to have a weird atmosphere of being in a recession, but without that term being used and without the definition (in terms of GDP growth or contraction) being met.

This starts to make more sense when you see that the GDP growth is largely the result of population growth and growth in the labour supply – not increased output per worker. GDP per capita was $58,304 in Q1 of 2020 and $58,111 in Q4 of 2023. Meanwhile, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, inflation has averaged 4% per year over the span, so C$100 in 2024 buys what C$85.48 would have bought in 2020. The average Canadian is getting poorer, even with all the stimulus that was given out over the pandemic and with all the new debt which has been accumulated. I personally think governments have been pulling out all stops to keep asset prices (especially stocks and houses) high since the 2008 financial crisis, with very little consideration of what those measures are doing to the non-affluent and those in future generations.

This is worrisome both in the immediate context and as a broader signifier. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow stresses how people experience gains differently from losses, and find a loss of any size more aversive than they find a gain of that size pleasurable. He comments on the social and political implications:

If you are set to look for it, the asymmetric intensity of the motives to avoid losses and to achieve gains show up almost everywhere. It is an ever-present feature of negotiations, especially of negotiations of an existing contract, the typical situation in labor negotiations and in international discussions of trade or arms limitations. The existing terms define reference points, and a proposed change in any aspect of the agreement is inevitably viewed as a concession that one side makes to the other. Loss aversion creates an asymmetry that makes agreements difficult to reach. The concessions you make to me are my gains, but they are your losses; they cause you more pain than they give me pleasure. Inevitably, you will place a higher value on them than I do. The same is true, of course, of the very painful concessions you demand from me, which you do not appear to value sufficiently! Negotiations over a shrinking pie are especially difficult, because they require an allocation of losses. People tend to be much more easygoing when they bargain over an expanded pie. (p. 304)

Globally, this pattern is alarming too. Humanity is choosing to persist in activities which we know will cause catastrophic climate change, loss of wealth, and unprecedented damage to the natural world which sustains us. We are also massively failing to invest enough in non-fossil energy sources to retain our current standard of life. This is setting us up for brutal inter- and intra-national fights over allocating losses.

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Shrugging our way through the breakdown of a stable world

Lately, in observing our politics and dealing with our society, I feel like a time traveller who has been sent back to before the forthcoming collapse. There is no success to be had in warning people though. They sense and feel that the collapse is coming, and that they are unwilling to make the changes that might avoid it. It’s not that people don’t believe the warning; they do. Apocalypse has become the leitmotif of our culture. People are just too corrupted by self-interest and too pessimistic about the ability of our society to solve problems to believe that anything can be done.

Kahneman on risks from excess confidence and optimism

Organizations that take the word of overconfident experts can expect costly consequences. The study of CFOs showed that those who were most confident and optimistic about the S&P index were also overconfident and optimistic about the prospects of their own firm, which went on to take more risk than others. As Nassim Taleb has argued, inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment inevitably leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid. However, optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession is that there are periods in which competition, among experts and among organizations, creates powerful forces that favor a collective blindness to risk and uncertainty.

The social and economic pressures that favor overconfidence are not restricted to financial forecasting. Other professionals must deal with the fact that an expert worthy of the name is expected to display high confidence. Philip Tetlock observed that the most overconfident experts were the most likely to be invited to strut their stuff in news shows. Overconfidence also appears to be endemic in medicine. A study of patients who died in the ICU compared autopsy results with the diagnosis that physicians had provided when the patients were still alive. Physicians also reported their confidence. The result: “clinicians who were ‘completely certain’ of the diagnosis antemortem were wrong 40% of the time.” Here again, expert overconfidence is encouraged by their clients: “Generally, it is considered a weakness and a sign of vulnerability for clinicians to appear unsure. Confidence is valued over uncertainty and there is a prevailing censure against disclosing uncertainty to patients.” Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality—but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred solution.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Random House Canada, 2011. p. 262–3

The nuclear razor’s edge

I listened to the audiobook of Annie Jacobson’s Nuclear War. Having followed the subject and read a lot about it over the years, it nonetheless had a lot of new information inside of a compellingly presented, plausible, and chlling story.

Our whole world can end in a couple of hours; live life accordingly.

Whose agenda are you devoted to?

I have never seen George Monbiot’s bettered as career advice, though it will not lead to an easy life. For instance:

What the corporate or institutional world wants you to do is the opposite of what you want to do. It wants a reliable tool, someone who can think, but not for herself: who can think instead for the institution. You can do what you believe only if that belief happens to coincide with the aims of the corporation, not just once, but consistently, across the years

Also:

How many times have I heard students about to start work for a corporation claim that they will spend just two or three years earning the money they need, then leave and pursue the career of their choice? How many times have I caught up with those people several years later, to discover that they have acquired a lifestyle, a car and a mortgage to match their salary, and that their initial ideals have faded to the haziest of memories, which they now dismiss as a post-adolescent fantasy? How many times have I watched free people give up their freedom?

What he cheers for and takes satisfaction from is inspiring too:

Most countries have a number of small alternative papers and broadcasters, run voluntarily by people making their living by other means: part time jobs, grants or social security. These are, on the whole, people of tremendous courage and determination, who have placed their beliefs ahead of their comforts. To work with them can be a privilege and inspiration, for the simple reason that they – and, by implication, you – are free while others are not. All the money, all the prestige in the world will never make up for the loss of your freedom.

Autonomy, not authority, is the only way to escape the many traps of the status quo.

May Boeve ‘stepping back’ at 350.org

A few years after Bill McKibben, May Boeve is also ‘stepping back’ from the climate change activist group 350.org.

The first three items on her list of accomplishments are all things I saw firsthand. The global divestment movement was a focus of my activist efforts from 2012–16 and then for my PhD research. Keystone XL resistance is a big part of what drew my interest to 350.org after 2011. In some ways, the 2014 People’s Climate March was the high point for Toronto350.org.

I can’t say I am optimistic about the present state of climate organizing. Activists are distracted by all sorts of issues and have little focus on actually abolishing and replacing fossil fuels, or on building a large and influential political coalition. Meanwhile, in mainstream politics, the way things are going is characterized by incomprehension about what is happening and ineffectual efforts to recapture what people feel entitled to, without comprehending that the world that made those things possible no longer exists. Humanity has never been in greater danger.

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Peter Russell tributes

In January, my friend and mentor Peter Russell died. His son Alex invited me to give remarks at his funeral reception: Remarks at the funeral of Peter Russell

Yesterday, I spoke at Innis College’s memorial event: Remarks about Peter Russell at Innis College

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Canada’s origin in fraud

Over the next few years, as I got to know the Dene better, I learned about how emissaries of the Canadian government had first entered the Dene lands and the conditions under which they negotiated Treaty Eight in 1899 as the queen’s representatives and Treaty Eleven as the king’s representatives in 1921. These treaties had about as much to do with the queen or king as they did with your great grandma or grandpa. The mission of the Canadian treaty party in 1899 was to secure a safe shortcut for Canadians on their way to the Klondike goldfields, and in 1921 to prepare access for the oil industry to the petroleum discovered at Norman Wells, a way down the Mackenzie River.

These treaties, like the other numbered treaties before and between them, were designed to gain access for settler industries to resources in areas that had been Indigenous nations’ homelands for centuries and in which Native peoples were still by far the dominant if not the only population…

Sovereignty is not mentioned in these treaties, nor is the queen or king referred to as sovereign. But the text of the treaties, written in Ottawa, in English, in advance of “negotiations” and not translated into the Native people’s language, contained some killer language. In return from some up-front money and small annual payments of a few dollars to every man, woman, and child, flags, medals, suits for the chiefs, sometimes fishnets and farming equipment, plus some small parcels of their former homeland to be assigned to them by the queen or king as “reserves,” the Native owners are purported “to cede, release, surrender and yield up” all rights and priveleges to all of their territory. This language is in all the numbered treaties. It is what the lawyers call “boilerplate.” At the so-called treaty negotiations, the Crown’s representatives did not use those killer words at all. Instead, the Indigenous signatories (who may have lacked authorization to sign anything on behalf of their nation) were assured that they would have access to their traditional hunting grounds as long as the sun rises and the rivers flow.

When you read the treaty texts and think about the actual treaty process, the most apt word that comes to mind in answering the Dene’s question about how the Queen got sovereignty over them is surely trickery. And that is a polite way of answering the question. Fraud is closer to what actually occurred. The First Nations had not been conquered, and while there was a strong interest in establishing a peaceful relationship and getting some tangible benefits, no Native people was so desperate that it would knowingly sign away its rights and make itself totally dependent on the largesse of the white man.

Russell, Peter. H. Sovereignty: The Biography of a Claim. University of Toronto Press, 2021. p. 4-5 (italics in original)

How should we feel about Canada now, if we acknowledge that its origins were fundamentally illegitimate?

In practical terms, does sovereignty mean anything other than armed control over a population?