Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 2

penseur1.jpgIn late November my post on climate change and human inertia met with 16 responses. I’m happy that what I wrote generated so much discussion, including from some esteemed visitors to Sans Everything who have a lot to say on this issue (Ray Ladbury, Eric Steig, John McCormick). But I’m also concerned that some of my learned friends, including the inimitable David Sachs and the inestimable Greg MacIsaac, appear content to stand on the sidelines of this issue. Their response opens some new tributaries of the question I asked previously: of why some hyper-educated folk still pooh-pooh the issue, and what it means that they do.

My earlier post was presented as a problem of action. I suggested that most people who sit on the climate fence do so not because of genuine scientific perplexity, but rather because of distractions like inordinate media controversy. But some of the people who responded to me wanted to shift the discussion back to scientific first principles all the same. Fair enough, I suppose, although I suspect that some of those responses may have had to do simply with the medium: the blogosphere invites contest on all matters.

Blog discussions are fun, and don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to go a few rounds trading declamations and propositions as much as the next penseur. But I believe climate change is the sort of issue that demands we move past parlour games, so I am genuinely interested in the levers of persuasion here. Greg invited us to think of climate change as a problem of epistemology. Well, here is a riddle for knowledge: if a well-informed philosopher is still harrumphing against climate change, how does one expect to convince someone who is rooted, say, in the evidentiary standards of religious fundamentalism? Greg also appealed to the idea of first-hand empirical verification, opening another wrinkle. Climate change is already a big enough challenge of persuasion as it stands: it becomes positively googolplexian if we believe that everyone on the planet has to investigate the matter firsthand before their view has any validity.

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Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 1

With the release of the IPCC’s fourth report on climate change, and in anticipation of the meeting of the world’s energy ministers in Bali in two weeks, I’d like to offer some posts centered around a simple question: why is it so difficult for the world to mobilize towards collective action? This post will focus on inertia with respect to scientific acceptance; subsequent posts will consider some of the economic and policy pressures against action.

It’s common to hear from climate change advocates that the scientific debate is over, that now we need to get on with action. I agree with them intellectually, but not empirically: I know plenty of people who still harbour significant doubts when it comes to the scientific story on climate change. One friend told me recently he was “agnostic.” Perhaps I just travel in skeptical circles. Then again, these people I know are not uneducated people: they have university degrees, and they work as professionals with extensive access to information. In other areas of their lives, they readily accept scientific methods. If they lived near a dormant volcano, I’ll bet they would pay close heed to scientific equipment that monitored volcanic rumblings, just as they would likely pay attention to any models that purported to predict seismic activity. So what gives – what is it about climate change in particular that invites doubt and denial, even among educated people? Many of the factors have nothing to do with science:

1) Media balance as bias. Although scientific peer-reviewed papers are in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real (see Oreskes, for example), journalists are trained to give attention to ‘both sides’ of a story. Most people read newspapers, not scientific journals – and thus they are led to believe from inordinate media controversy that there is an equivalent debate in scientific journals where there is none.

2) Climate change is threatening to market purists. As Sir Nicholas Stern has argued, climate change may well be the greatest market failure in history. For free market dogmatists who want to believe the market will solve everything if left to its own devices, this is a very inconvenient truth indeed – so much so that they are tempted to attack the science itself so as to undermine the rationale for regulation or taxation. It is no accident, therefore, that climate change especially invites the ire of editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and, in Canada, the National Post (a kind of Mini-Me to the WSJ’s Dr. Evil on this file). In the market purists’ narrative of history, Hayek is a saint and the tragedy of the commons is to be solved entirely through property rights and technological innovation. But the atmosphere is indifferent to debates over Austrian economics, and the evidence is what it is independent of whether editorial writers have a fetish for markets.

3) A handful of credible scientific skeptics are still out there. Many of the initiatives to encourage climate skepticism (the 1998 global warming petition project, the Energy and Environment journal) have been discredited. A number of the most prominent climate skeptics whose names are associated time and again with petitions, speeches and media interviews are long retired from active scientific research. But the fact remains that Richard Lindzen of MIT is a credible skeptic (I am not sure who else can be so described). Ultimately people have to balance the likes of Lindzen, who wishes to stand up against what he calls an “alarmist gale,” against the evidence of harm and risk that builds every week. Incidentally: does anyone know whether Lindzen has revised his positon of late?

4) The IPCC is seen as a political organization. But how could it not be? How could any international organization driving towards common principles on a central question of the planet, with profound implications for political economy, do its business in a pure interpretive vacuum? Does science ever work the way positivists want it to work in any event? And how could hundreds of scientists from around the world attempt to draft language together on a matter as complex as climate science without encountering moments of interpretation, dissent and disagreement? What is remarkable therefore is not that there have been stories of dissent and interpretive bias, but rather the strength of the consensus that has formed all the same. Given the redistributive implications of climate change, one would expect scientists to face a lot more political pressure from their governments to run interference on the science than appears to be the case.

And let’s not forget the numerous other scientific organizations that have supported the IPCC findings, including: NASA, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the International Ad Hoc Detection and Attribution Group, the national science academies of the G8 nations and Brazil, China and India, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

5) If climate change is real, we have our work cut out for us. This is Al Gore’s point when he sees people shifting from denial to despair. So long as people doubt the science, they don’t have to ask the hard questions about how we are living our lives. Most people and institutions start, therefore, with a profound bias towards inaction, because their lives and institutions are part of the problem. It’s easier to keep questioning, and climate change is such a vast subject that doubt retains an air of plausibility. But intellectually, the burden of proof shifted some time ago. As John Holdren says,

“To be credible, the handful of ‘skeptics’ about human causation of current global climate change would need both to explain what alternative mechanism could account for the pattern of changes observed and to explain how it could be that the known human-caused buildup in GHG is not having the effects predicted for it by the sum of current climate-science knowledge (since, by assumption, something else is having these effects). No skeptic has met either test.”

Food for Thought from Ghana

In an earlier post, I argued that the ‘eat local’ movement risks giving people the false sense that they are making meaningful carbon reductions while also harming developing countries that are singularly dependent on agricultural exports. Today I ran across a news story on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development website that shared some remarks by Ghana’s High Commissoner to Britain, Annan Cato, along similar lines. Some highlights:

“Ending imports of fresh food from Africa under the pretext of combating climate change risks destroying entire communities that have become dependent on the trade, Ghana’s High Commissioner to Britain said on Wednesday.

‘We do understand, of course, that our friends are anxious to make a difference. However, the figures simply do not add up,’ said Annan Cato, noting that less than 0.1 percent of Britain’s carbon emissions relate to airfreighted food. ‘At what cost to global justice do we shut the door on the economic prospects of small farmers in Africa by refusing to buy their produce … There are many other ways for the British shopper to reduce their carbon footprint without damaging the livelihoods of thousands of poor African farming families … Reducing greenhouse gas emissions must be done in a fair, scientific and rational way – making cuts at the expense of the world’s poorest is not only unjust, it is a bad basis for building the international consensus needed for a global deal on climate change.'”

Amen and bravo, High Commissioner!

Hegel explains the Cookie Monster

Cookie-cutterĀ thinker?

Some time ago I told my sister about seeing an episode of Sesame Street in which Cookie Monster expressed a fear of monsters. But how could this be, she asked, when Cookie Monster is himself already a bona fide monster? Here is how Hegel might have answered:

Self-consciousness is both a subject and object to itself, even within childhood, and monsters enter both sides of this mediated reflection in the realm of childhood terror.

A monster can experience terror of another monster, and recoil in horror at the very sight. At the same time, however, this negation in its actual manifestation is not something alien and external to the monster who is scared. It is, quite simply, the universal idea of monsters, which in this its last abstraction has nothing positive, and hence can give nothing to reassure the child who is reluctant to look under his bed, and nothing to reassure the monster who encounters another monster and sees only the object in its pure scary universality, forgetting the subject that is capable of reason just as he is.

But just on that account this will is in unmediated oneness with self-consciousness, it is the pure positive because it is the pure negative; and that meaningless “Boo!” from underneath the bed, the unfilled, vacuous negativity of self, in its inner constitutive principle, turns round into absolute positivity. Consciousness is changed and converted into the absolutely opposite experience.

This logic requires the healing mediation of childhood consciousness. A monster presents itself in its immediacy as an object of fear, even to itself, but this object, once named as a friend and entered into the domesticated self-consciousness of a child, can be the very means by which dangerous monsters external to the child are kept at bay. Thus the cold-blooded marching of monsters on the cold and crunchy snow outside a child’s window – timed to coincide with the heartbeat of that child reverberating on a pillow, in a futile effort to avoid detection – is overcome through the conscious introduction of a now domesticated monster who becomes an object of fear for those monsters lingering outside, because it has now taken an alien form to them in the form of a stuffed animal. And precisely in taking an alien form to other monsters, this monster rises out of the swamp of ghoulish imaginings and the fog of unhappy consciousness, and for the first time discovers the possibility of self-reconciliation through the magical mediation of the child and family life.

Thus the domesticated monster desires no longer childhood terror but cookies and milk, and in this mediated desire has squared and balanced both his own self-opposition as a scary monster and also the opposition of other monsters, with each now fearing the other and the opposition between them representing a new certainty through which freedom and childhood reassurance find expression once again. Just as the realm of childhood terror passes over into that of childhood imaginary friendship by which the monster is given a name, so the monster can leave its self-destructive sphere of reality, and pass over into the magical land of self-conscious spirit and affirmation in a loving home, where freedom is at last taken to be and is accepted as a positive notion which can endure.

And even though an adult puts away such childish things this speculative freedom endures, and is renewed with each generation of children as the opposition between friendly and unfriendly monsters is rediscovered as a problem for childhood consciousness. Children work their way to reconciliation through the self-alienation of the monster’s spirit, and the monster’s fear of itself ultimately gives way to reassurance, laughter, awe at the childhood imagination, and finally nostalgia.

Happy Halloween!

Fish need bicycles (and planes and trains)

I have a number of reservations with the ‘eat local’ movement – and I don’t mean in restaurants:

1) De gustibus non disputandum est. Local food does not necessarily mean lower carbon emissions. If we are after lower carbon (and we should be), let’s pursue this goal directly. Let’s be transparent in tracking and pricing carbon across all sectors instead of acting on the misplaced and dangerous faith that local can serve as a proxy for lower. Let’s pay the carbon premium on, say, imported pineapples so as to encourage less carbon-intensive transportation routes, and enjoy our pineapples guilt free.

2) Caveat emptor. Local food can of course be bad for people and the environment: local farming practice may do more damage to the environment in the form of pesticides or water use than alternate farming practices farther afield. Just as the lifecycle environmental impact of one ethanol source can be quite different from another, the same is true for food production. Local food in parts of China might be full of toxins, no matter how proximate. Pilot dolphins might very well be ‘local’ to the Japanese whaling city of Taiji against their better judgement, but Taiji school kids still shouldn’t eat those dolphins for lunch, because their meat has dangerously high concentrations of mercury (among other arguments for not eating dolphins).

3) Qui bono? How convenient for protectionists, and how damaging to development! Japan has a 600% tariff on rice imports: its rice farmers don’t need any more help to discourage Japanese imports of rice from China, Thailand and Vietnam – even though the removal of formal and informal barries to rice imports in Japan would greatly enrich farmers in those countries. The same logic applies elsewhere: in many parts of the world, notably Africa, agricultural exports represent the fastest path to development – but Africans run up against import barriers in the EU and elsewhere. So what would the ‘buy local’ idealists envision for farming-based communities in Africa?

4) Reductio ad absurdum. Why restrict the ‘buy local’ injunction to food? Why not also encourage people to buy local electronic products, automotive parts, clothing, housing materials and vacations? It makes no sense to single out food while ignoring all other forms of consumption that entail emissions through transport. If the point is indeed to reduce carbon, a zero footprint commitment makes much more sense than a fetish for geographic distance, because substantial emissions can be generated without ever leaving home. If the point is to reduce consumption and waste altogether, the buy local movement is a mere poseur when compared to freegans who sustain themselves by dumpster diving. Sure, it might appear at first blush that there is no contradiction between buy local activists and freegans, but they are in fact motivated by inconsistent impulses: the former want to help local farmers grow their business within the marketplace, while the latter aim at nothing less than a wholesale rejection of modern consumer life. And of course freegans won’t throw away vegetables from the local dumpster just because they were imported before they were discarded.