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!

Embracing the fringe

Polar meltdown
“Polar meltdown” (Photo: Arne Naevra)

Okay, so I fibbed. Two posts ago I told you that I’d explain in my very next post why I voted Green in the recent Ontario election. And then, without even signaling, I left the road in a shower of gravel and ended up talking about Stephen Fry’s new blog. But let’s not hang around chewing over hurt feelings. Consider it an unexpected bonus, and let’s call it even.

Any essay that starts out with a “why I voted x” topic statement immediately implies that voting “x” is not normal for the author. Voting Green is not normal for me. Come to think of it, voting is not normal for me. I’ve had a longstanding policy of leaving voting, in general, to those motivated enough to actually learn something about the choices in front of them. I have to take it on faith that such people exist. Frankly, I don’t know what drives most voters to the polls after a back-breaking day at work. Party loyalty, perhaps handed down as family tradition? Ideology? Greed? Fear? The patriotism of democracy? Surprisingly powerful, that last one, particularly among university students (who don’t, lest you give them too much credit, have back-breaking days at work to recover from).

I know what drives me, though: I’m a crisis voter. When times are good, I can’t work out the policy differences between Liberals and Tories. Either one will do, and I trust my fellow Ontarians and Canadians to do the right thing in the ballot cubicles (what are those little tables with the cardboard-box screens called, anyway?). I’m honest about my tradeoffs, too. If the government of the day does something egregious, I’m the last to complain about it – I didn’t vote for their opponents, after all – or even to notice it, usually.

But when times are bad, when unjust wars or disastrous economic policies are in the slips, you can count on me to wield my vote with a vengeance. (You should see how heavily and aggressively I mark an X on the voting card. Mussolini would be proud.) And the great thing about being a crisis voter is that there’s no need to work out any subtle policy differences between the parties. To use the Latin, some are fer, and some are agin. It’s usually pretty easy to pick the party that offers the best hope of stopping whatever crisis drove me to the polling booth in the first place.

Thus, the brief history of my vote. In the 1980s, after the Liberals had driven Canada deep into debt, I voted Tory. In the 1990s, when both major parties agreed on basic economics and social policy, I didn’t vote at all. And in the years after September 11, I voted for the Liberals, who were the party most likely to keep Canada out of the Iraq War and at a safe distance from U.S. foreign policy.

I used the same approach in the Ontario election, although with a slight twist. In previous elections, I voted for one of the two major parties because I wanted to be sure action would be taken. Voting for a fringe party or for the not-soon-to-be-elected NDP was never an option. Now that climate change is the crisis at hand, however, there was reason to believe that either of the winning parties would be capable of applying sensible policies in Ontario (or rather, that both the Tories and the Liberals are equally capable of the same level of mish-mash pointed in generally the right direction). So for me the primary need was to give the winning party a clear indication of the importance of doing the right thing. So Green it was.

Winning 8% of the popular vote, nearly a tripling of their support from 2003, the Greens seem to have benefited from a mini-wave of such voting. A lawyer friend of mine, a Liberal, told me later that the problem with this kind of protest vote was that its influence would not be lasting – not least because first-past-the-post ensured that the Greens would have not a single seat in the legislature. But I’m more hopeful. I just visualize Liberal and Tory strategists staring at the 2007 poll results again and again over the next several years as they plot for victory in the next election, scribbling furiously on their yellow pads, trying to boil down the themes and lessons that they’ll rely on. And I’m sure that more than one of them, hopefully all of them, will end up writing something like this: “It’s the environment, stupid.”

Never a wasted vote. That’s my policy.

Alone in the Universe

The universe is much emptier than we once thought it was. Not too long ago, in the era of Einstein and Picasso, it was possible for reputable astronomer to speculate about the canals of Mars (could they possibly be remnants of an ancient civilization?). The science fiction of the mid-twentieth century often postulated a very densely populated solar system: Venus with its steaming jungles, Mars with its red-rose dusty cities half as old as time (with perhaps some hidden survivors encamped like Bedouins among the ruins), perhaps even monstrous intelligent whales swimming in the oceans of Jupiter.

One by one, these speculations were transformed into fantasy. The more we learned about our solar system, the more desolate it became.

And not just the solar system. Given the size and age of the universe, scientists like Frank Drake and Carl Sagan entertained the possibility that the universe was teaming with life with millions of inhabited planets. Inspired by these hopes, the search for intelligent life in space (SETI as the enthusiasts call it) has been going on for several decades now. Perhaps it hasn’t been as wide-ranging as it could be but our ears are cocked to the stars and we are trying to pick up any faint signals of intelligence. So far, only silence.

Increasingly, we have to ask the question raised by physicist Enrico Fermi: “Where is everybody?” There are any number of answers: perhaps the extra- terrestrials just don’t want to talk to us. Perhaps it’s the nature of intelligent species to destroy themselves at the very point at which they can send messages into space. Perhaps the distances are too large to make communication possible (if that were so, then in effect it is the same as if there are no extra-terrestrials at all).

But consider this: It’s entirely possible that earth is the only planet in the universe that is filled with abundant life and self-conscience species. We could be a very tiny and fertile oasis in an unimaginably large desert.

The possibility that we’re all alone in the universe has real implications. If there are no ETs then the survival of earth becomes a matter of more than self-interest. Taking care of the earth becomes a cosmic responsibility. If we muff it here, then it’s game over for life.

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.