Hard Realities: Why Understating the Cost of Dealing With Climate Change Hurts

Sharon January 26th, 2009

Despite our taste for doing so, the world can never be divided into two kinds of people.  Still, were one to try and divvy up climate change activists, one way to do it might be to divide up those who admit that addressing climate change is going to be painful and those who are inclined to minimize the difficulties, perhaps even claim that in our mitigation strategies lies the beginning of a new economy.

Among those who stand on the “this is going to hurt and it is best we prepare people for it” side of the aisle are Bill McKibben, who has discussed the costs of climate change in recent articles in _Foreign Policy_ and _Yale Environment 360_, George Monbiot, whose superb _Heat_ describes his concern that our calls to insufficient action actually reflect our desire to fail, and thus not be forced into austerity, and James Hansen, who has described the methods that must be implicated in the next few years as “draconian.”  Longtime readers will recognize that I fall firmly in this category as well – in fact, one of my proudest achievements was the inclusion of language I wrote (profuse thank to Albert Bates for arranging its inclusion) in a document on climate change presented to Kofi Annan calling for a reconsideration of climate activist’s reluctance to call for sacrifice. 

On the other side of this divide stand, well, I think most major climate activists.  I do not think I am misrepresenting the field to say that the majority opinion is that climate change can probably be addressed without too high a cost, and that hopes are running high among many people that new green jobs will mitigate the current economic crisis.  I certainly don’t blame such writers for their hope, but I think they overstate.  For example, Grist contributor Anna Fahey has argued that the fact that a recent poll puts climate change down as number 20 out of 20 of national concerns really isn’t that bad, because

“The fact is, solutions that will address the top two concerns — the economy and jobs — as well as several other top 10 concerns — energy, terrorism, helping the poor — are all wrapped up in the best solutions for combating climate change.

The fossil-fuel roller coaster has long whiplashed family budgets, and our economy remains shackled to its adrenaline-boosting unpredictability. Any economic recovery we muster in coming months will sputter if we fail to reduce our fossil-fuel dependence. As soon as the economy rebounds, oil prices are sure to shoot up again, negating the economic gains that we’ve made. “

There is some real truth there – but there’s a big missing elephant in this room.  The problem is that if the people don’t actually care about climate change, they are likely to seek solutions, say, to rising oil prices that make the climate situation worse.  For example, in the Northeast, where I live, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of households burning coal for heat, in response to rising heating oil prices and availability issues.  In order to choose spending thousands on insulation, rather than a thousand dollars on a coal stove, a household will have to actually care about climate change – and convey that concern to their representatives in such a way as to provided economic incentives to choose the more expensive option.  It is not clear to me that the best ways to keep people comfortable in their homes or to get us new jobs are always ones that lead towards the radical shifts in carbon usage that are needed – and my concern is that as long as the message remains “we won’t ask too much of you” people will indeed expect not to be asked.

In this sense, my own feeling is that those who understate the costs of mitigating climate change actually do more harm than good.  I don’t blame them for their preference for the politically palatable – I would prefer that too.  But I would argue that there are two problems – the first is that a more politically palatable strategy is infeasible, particularly given the current economic situation, and that it risks branding climate activists as liars later on, when the bills come due. 

A good example of those who dispute the “this is gonna hurt” strategy is Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope’s recent missive “Moving the US Off Carbon with Less Pain, More Gain.”  He writes,

“But if, as Bill McKibben has said elsewhere, there is no silver bullet for climate change, just lots of silver buckshot, then insisting that sacrifice is the key has the effect of distracting us from the reality that it will take many answers to solve the problem. Often, advocates of inaction or tokenism say the reason we must do too little is that the price of doing more is too extreme. It is not strategically helpful to reinforce this notion.

The assumption that the costs of climate recovery will be prohibitively high simply does not stand up to scrutiny. A study by McKinsey & Company last year documented large opportunities to reduce U.S. emissions by 2030 that could be achieved with a negative cost — meaning that these represent investment opportunities that would increase the productivity of the overall U.S. economy. Less speculatively, experts at the University of California-Berkeley recently documented that more than 1.5 million jobs were created in California by relatively aggressive clean energy policies adopted by the state between 1972 and 2006. And other studies show that in the long run, energy costs are lower under a high efficiency and renewable energy scenario.” I would never presume to speak for Bill McKibben, but my own guess is that the reason that he presents sacrifice as key is that “sacrifice” is not in itself a BB, a bullet or a wedge, but something different – a national relationship to our collective actions, some hard, some not, one that opens up the range of available possibilities.  Were I making the case, my inclination would be to observe that we are more likely to succeed with more ammo to fire against climate change (can I just say that I really hate the BB-Bullet discussion – is there no other terminology we can get to here?) rather than less – a call to sacrifice offers us a range of options not available without that compelling rationale – without, we have fewer BBs to shoot.But is sacrifice really even necessary?  Pope mentions studies that suggest that we might actually make money on the climate, and the possibility of job growth.  But let’s take a closer look here at the studies he cites.  It might first be noted that the McKinsey report mentioned was sponsored by such ecological luminaries as Shell and PG&E – this does not in itself devalue the research, but it does suggest that the research was undertaken by those who would probably like to find necessary energy cuts economically profitable.  But more importantly the essay shows comparatively low cost abatements for limiting emissions to 550 ppm, moderate cost for limiting them to 450ppm (among them Carbon Capture and Storage, often falsely described as “clean” coal –  which does not exist and probably never will – so is irrelevant to any discussion), and then leaves open “higher cost abatements” for stopping at 400ppm.  Moreover, it presumes a fairly stable economic situation – neither of which assumptions deal with the reality.

Much of the problem lies in shifting assessments of what we have to do – analysis based on older climate estimates of 450 ppm by mid-century simply don’t match up to the new science.  For example, see Gar Lipow’s timely discussion of how fast we have to cut emissions radically.  Generally speaking, those who claim that climate change can be arrested without signficant economic costs are those who still accept the IPCC assumptions about climate sensitivity, many of which were proved false before or shortly after its release.  Williams, I think does a superb job of demonstrating the big gap in our understanding – at this point, we don’t know what precise rate or by what date we need to reduce emissions.  But it seems likely that Pope’s analysis, while better than the IPCC’s, is still understating the scale of emissions reduction.  He says,

“Confronted with the urgent need to reduce our economy’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent to 35 percent in the next 12 years, and 80 percent to 95 percent by mid-century, it is difficult to imagine this shift not requiring massive sacrifice.”

The “mid-century” figure is almost certainly far too far in the future.  Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute suggests we have to be down 80% in 11 years.  Most other cutting edge analysis suggest at the latest by 2030.  Nearly all analysts find that the costs of mitigation rise rapidly when we have to do it faster and make deeper cuts. 

The other relevant point, and one that seems to be grasped by few climate activists is this.  In 2006, 80% by 2050 seemed quite radical.  In just 2 years we’ve learned that climate sensitivity is, as Carbon Equity puts it, ”double” what was thought in 2006.  Meanwhile, in two years we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in arctic ice, in the ability of the ocean to absorb carbon and we’ve begun to see signs of substantial increases in methane release – all things that the IPCC had predicted might happen at the end of the century. 

Which means that given the pace at which the acceptable carbon levels are being pushed back, it would be foolhardy not to leave room in our analyses for the reality that the earth’s response to carbon already emitted may push back acceptable levels of carbon still further.  That means, we may have to move even faster than we think.  I realize this is not pleasant to consider, but we have no choice but to allow some leeway.  Pope’s analysis assumes lower targets than the emerging scientific consensus, he assumes a longer period to make the shifts, and most importantly, he leaves no room for further revisions, even though events of the last few years suggest that they are likely to be needed. 

The other difficulty with Pope’s analysis, and with many other climate activists’ assessment that we can count on this to be easy is that their analyses seem to take a given a stable economic situation.  Generally speaking, brief mention is made of the economic downturn, the assumption is that life will shortly return to Business As Usual.  The problem with this assumption is that it leaves out other contributing factors, and views climate change in isolation.  I think it is not accident that among those activists who endorse a call for sacrifice, every single one is on record as believing in peak oil.  Hansen, McKibben, Monbiot – all seem to fully grasp peak oil *and* the fact that peak oil is most likely to manifest itself as an economic difficulty.

 Indeed, I’ve argued that our current financial crisis is, in fact, an expression of both climate change and peak oil, indirectly.  In my essay ”Peeling the Onion: What’s Behind the Financial Mess” I argue that the food crisis, which is both an energy crisis (much of the rise in food prices was driven by the rich world’s misguided rush to biofuels) and to a lesser extent a climate crisis (climate instability has also been a contributing factor in the rising cost of food) drove millions of new consumers in the Global South back into poverty, forcing them to spend more and more of their income on food, and thus cut the flow of growth in the world overall. 

Whether you accept that analysis or not, it is certainly no accident that rising energy prices eventually helped push an fragile bubble into collapse – and quite honestly, there’s little reason to believe that future high energy prices, when they return, won’t also cause another economic crisis (assuming we actually get out of this one), or extend the current one.  In fact, I’ve argued that in the US, most of our truly serious economic crises have lasted a decade or more which suggests that there is a tolerable chance that whatever strategies we will use to deal with climate change must be compatible with a vastly poorer society, with its eyes fixed on its economic difficulties.  Is this inevitable?  No, but just as we need to take into account the possibility that climate sensitivity will be further revised downward in accordance to new realities, it would be imprudent to base any policy on an assumption of wealth for which there is no clear evidence.

In a Global Depression, which is what we seem to be facing at present, the realities of long term economic returns and cost benefits are radically different than all the prior estimates have been based upon.  As far as I know, there is no major economic analysis of the consequences of climate change mitigation in a negative growth Depression.  All of our economic analysis has so far assumed growth, the ability to borrow, and most importantly, a population of reasonable affluence.   The gap in our understanding this lack of research creates is vast.  The reality is that things have changed, and we forgot to allow for those changes.  This is understandable, but the rhetoric of climate change must change now, to reflect the new realities.  Yes, our president is calling for year over year trillion dollar deficits, and some of that money will probably be poured into green development – indeed, it absolutely should be.

But more and more of that money will be needed to simply mitigate economic suffering – states will need it to keep the plows and buses running and basic policing going, unemployment funds will need to be replenished.  Pope’s observation that green growth led to the creation of 1.5 million jobs in California from 1972 to 2006 ignores the fact that that was a 34 year span (I was born in 1972) – that adds up to a job creation rate of about 250K a year – and we lost more than twice that in jobs last month.   Again, do not mistake me – my goal here is not to dismiss the value of investing in environmentally friendly infrastructure, it is to talk about things as they actually are, in the hopes that we might not abandon the project of mitigating climate change altogether.

 In a declining economic situation, where much of our action must be undertaken in a period where people are struggling economically and where their eyes are primarily fixed upon their suffering, climate change risks being driven off the agenda altogether by the economy.  If the current Depression goes on – and there seems no realistic end in sight, and more and more economists are assuring us that there is no quick fix - we will have to cut our emissions hugely while people are also enduring involuntary economic pain.  We may also have to cut those emissions while enduring the early effects of peak oil, which may further cut into the resources we have to adapt.

It seems likely that the next decade, which James Hansen calls “critical” will be one of collective suffering, and a major shift in economic realities.  Even Pope admits that there will be some hardship.  Those who deny the reality of climate change are already claiming starting to claim that misguided attempts to deal with climate change are already the cause of our suffering – and that will only increase, no matter what carbon cost strategy we adopt.  The climate deniers are already trying to seize the public narrative – and as people get poorer they will be more likely to accept the idea that their poverty is in part caused by our strategies for dealing with climate change – or even to agree with those who believe climate change isn’t a real problem.  We have seen over the last decade and more just how powerful the anti-scientific but rhetorically brilliant climate denier lobby.

Pope’s strategy, which is to reassure people that they will end up better off is doomed to failure.  The reason is that whether climate change has anything to do with it or not, the odds are good that during much of the period in question, people won’t be better off – and they are not foolish enough to accept being told that something is for their benefit when they do not see benefits.  This strategy is likely to enable the denier narrative that says that climate science is false – because they will point out that we promised something we could not and did not deliver.  And we will have.

On the other hand, the rhetoric of sacrifice is potentially powerful here.  Historically speaking, in the US, in Britain, in many nations we’ve seen a willingness to endure privation if we felt we were part of a greater national project, if our sacrifices were needed.  And this is where climate change, overlain upon the economic crisis, offers us a chance to pull together.  That is, poverty due to economic crisis has no inspiring qualities.  But sacrifice for the cause of building a better future for one’s posterity – that has possibilities.  In that narrative, one can ask people to forgo the coal stove, can ask them to bear with cooler temperatures, not just because they can no longer afford to heat their houses as they have been, but as part of a Global and national project that ensures the well-being of the future.  That is, the call to sacrifice makes possible a range of actions impossible without it, and enables an overarching narrative that makes even involuntary sacrifice part of a heroic story.  It is, I think, impossible to underestimate how important the sense of personal heroism can be to shaping one’s understanding of events.

Moreover, I think the public will forgive hardship in ways they will not forgive lies.  Do not mistake me, I think Pope is telling the truth as he sees it, and so are optimistic climate activists.  But there is a solid chance that what he’s saying will become a lie, and be perverted into one by the denier right.  Only by taking command of the story we are being told can we acknowledge necessity and bring (if we must speak in the language of ammunition) as many BBs to the battle as possible.


30 Responses to “Hard Realities: Why Understating the Cost of Dealing With Climate Change Hurts”

  1. MEA says:

    Transistion is hard…

    Was feeling this am that I’d much rather be living post transition (which to me, at the best moments) seems like a cross between English village life c. 1935 and c. 1400(and mostly likely will be nothing like) with all the happy cooperation etc. that I see, even if it means that I’m a bit colder and hungrier than I am now, that watching what’s happening now.

    I guess it’s easier to cling to an idea that things are going to be easier (either in terms of the journey or the arrivial) than to face what’s really happening.

    You were asking a while ago what’s happening to retail around here.

    Had to get my glasses adjusted at a huge strip mall, and walked the length.

    Target, hiring, but only part time.
    Famous Footware, (I have a chatting relationship with the manager) struggling no to lay people off. Can’t price goods low enough to shift.
    Pearl Vision, quieter than usual,per man at counter
    Calinfornia Tans, out of business
    Indepent shop that sold very up market plastic pumbkins, out of business
    Upscale food market (local chain) looked a little quiet, but might have been time of day.
    Dance Academy, offierng increadable deals, like of which I’d never seen, (2 or 3 years ago I went that once a week while dd the younger had inclusive dance class);
    Radio Shack — low stock, one clerk visiable, reading magaizine

    Plus 2 empty store fronts, couldn’t tell what they’d held.

  2. Lynn says:

    Hi Sharon, I’ve really been enjoying your blog and your book for the last 2 months and appreciate how your talking about challenging things makes them seem more possible, doable and less scary – thanks for this.

    Just checking that ” Popper” is a nickname for Carl Pope?

    Is the document that was presented to Kofi Annan a public document? I’d love to know the link.

    Cheers, Lynn

  3. olympia says:

    Sacrifice is a toxic word for a lot of people. I believe that environmental activists may have the planet’s best interests at heart when they talk a “no sacrifice” strategy- they fear that asking people to give up too much will cause a backlash, in which people give up nothing. But, well, you also can’t ignore the fact we live in a consumer-driven society, and environmental activists are products of our society, like everyone else. Perhaps they really do believe that we can continue to consume as we always have, so long as we’re consuming the right stuff. Telling people, you may have to let yourself get cold, get dirty, you may have to walk a lot more- why do that, when green technology will prevent all matter of discomfort?

    I’m reminded of being in college, many years ago. Most everyone smoked back then- some fledgling environmental activists declared they were switching to a brand that had a more biodegradable filter. One woman, though, to lessen her impact, decided she was going to quit smoking altogether, and I remember being very impressed with her (at the time, I was still smoking wantonly away, with little thought of what type of filter of which I was disposing), by how real and meaningful her sacrifice was, compared to the others with their cotton filters. It’s her type of sacrifice that most environmental activists are afraid to ask of people, but it’s the kind of sacrifice that’s needed.

  4. EJ says:

    So many things that we can do to alleviate climate change do good in other categories as well: buy local, eat less (no) meat, drive less, buy less stuff, waste less, be smarter about home heating & cooling, support organic farming etc.

    I don’t find these to be a sacrifice.

  5. Colleen says:

    Great post, Sharon!

    Lynn -

    I think ‘Popper’ refers to Karl Popper.

  6. Sharon says:

    I accidentally mixed up “Carl Pope” with the philosopher “Karl Popper” and mistyped his name. Apologies for the confusion, I think it is now fixed.


  7. jannie says:

    Of course you are right and significant sacrifices will be expected of us. I believe your message is that if we sacrifice now and begin to understand and respond to the challenges that lay ahead, we will actually be in a better position in the future – as opposed to putting our collective heads in the sand and hoping it will all go away.

    One of the most difficult challenges we face is the ability to persuade others to accept and embrace what the future has in store for us. What is needed is sometimes referred to as good old fashioned “salesmanship” and it is a talent we need in abundance these days.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I work at a research institution which does a lot of climate science research and part of my work is in climate change education. Part of the reason communicators have been as positive as they have been is that many people shut down when they know the full magnitude of the problem, and become more likely to believe the deniers who are telling them it’s all an elaborate hoax. And that’s adults-for people who work with children, it’s even more important to include hope and solutions along with the science and scary observations. I’m not saying that the reality should be sugar-coated or that sacrifice is not important-I’m saying that along with the truth must be given liberal doses of empowerment in order for society to accept and respond. I have worked with science teachers who tell me parents were calling because their students were home crying about climate change, and who now include solutions early and often in order to help kids process and respond. We all need that.

    I’d also like to make a distinction between climate science and climate activists-most climate science is about what is being observed and understood about the climate system-the field is just beginning the science that would inform solutions and society’s responses. The vast majority of climate scientists are not public climate activists. Thus, if rosy green jobs don’t materialize, it’s not because climate science lied or failed us.

    Regarding deniers: I was at a talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting a few years back on the topic of climate change communications and someone predicted that the denier claims would go as follows: “It’s not happening”, “OK it’s happening, but it’s not because of us”, “It’s happening because of us, but there’s nothing we can do about it”, “We can do something about it but it would cost too much” and so on, and it’s been interesting watching exactly that happen.

    Thanks for the post and the food for thought.

  9. Susan Buhr says:

    Sorry, I meant to comment as myself, not as anonymous. Apologies for the double post.

    I work at a research institution which does a lot of climate science research and part of my work is in climate change education. Part of the reason communicators have been as positive as they have been is that many people shut down when they know the full magnitude of the problem, and become more likely to believe the deniers who are telling them it’s all an elaborate hoax. And that’s adults-for people who work with children, it’s even more important to include hope and solutions along with the science and scary observations. I’m not saying that the reality should be sugar-coated or that sacrifice is not important-I’m saying that along with the truth must be given liberal doses of empowerment in order for society to accept and respond. I have worked with science teachers who tell me parents were calling because their students were home crying about climate change, and who now include solutions early and often in order to help kids process and respond. We all need that.

    I’d also like to make a distinction between climate science and climate activists-most climate science is about what is being observed and understood about the climate system-the field is just beginning the science that would inform solutions and society’s responses. The vast majority of climate scientists are not public climate activists. Thus, if rosy green jobs don’t materialize, it’s not because climate science lied or failed us.

    Regarding deniers: I was at a talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting a few years back on the topic of climate change communications and someone predicted that the denier claims would go as follows: “It’s not happening”, “OK it’s happening, but it’s not because of us”, “It’s happening because of us, but there’s nothing we can do about it”, “We can do something about it but it would cost too much” and so on, and it’s been interesting watching exactly that happen.

    Thanks for the post and the food for thought.

  10. BlissfulBee says:

    I just made the mistake of reading this post and then going over to Crunchy Chicken and reading her post about going refrigerator-free (and the comments responding to it). Sacrifice isn’t going to come gracefully….

  11. bryan says:

    I agree fully with the cost issue, but I also have to ask “compared to what?”

    A) If sea levels do rise a meter or two this century what will it cost to move Miami, Hong Kong, the population of Bangladesh and raise the levies in Holland, Vancouver and New Orleans? I think 13% of the world’s urban population lives within 10 meters of sea level. The 10% of rural population at risk will cost a little less to move (we can just ignore them!).

    B) If the rains stop falling in Africa, Australia & Arizona we have to move all those people and cities, or maybe a pipe from Greenland.

    C) If the rains move somewhere else (India?) we have too move all those people from lowlands, and probably pay for some burst dams.

    D) 85 million barrels per day at $25 a barrel is 2 billion of today’s dollars a day spent every day on oil smoke up the chimney. I’m guessing the world will be paying close to $10 billion a day in the near future. Another wild guess – double that to include direct costs of coal, uranium and natural gas.

    I’m assuming all “burners” (vehicles, power stations) cost about the same amount to build per unit of energy so I’ll ignore that cost.

    I truly hope there is someone on the planet who can do a better cost calculation, but this ten minute uneducated estimate is $3.5 trillion dollars a year to continue as usual and we’ll deal with the disasters one at a time.

    That’s a lot of windmills, insulation, electric cars and trains.

    The problem seems to be that all of this is speculative, but we know how much 1 kilometer of bike path will cost, and gosh, it’s sure expensive.

  12. southernrata says:

    And isn’t it Gar Lipow, not Gar Williams? A really thoughtful writer, who it is always a pleasure to read.

  13. vera says:

    I am really tired of this whole nonsense that pretends that we can “change back” the Earth’s climate. Human hubris. The weather people said 50 years ago that the 1850-1950 weather patterns were unusually cooperative with humans and that it would not last. And it hasn’t. Not denying that we humans have made it worse… but the Earth is not a stable weather environment, we just lucked out for a while. In any case, the whole rationalizing mindset that pretends we can bring back the weather of 1950 is plain silly. I wonder if our ancestors sat around 50,000 years ago debating how to turn around the ice age. Sheesh.

  14. Fern says:

    Vera, the point is to stop making it worse, to stop melting glaciers, etc. Rather like trying to stop poisoning the Chesapeak Bay.

    Applying the brakes might not prevent an accident, but hitting the other car more slowly will limit the damage.

    But, yeah, I for one think that we are co-creators with the Gods. The manifestations of the Gods on this plane. If that is hubris (a term of contempt from a DIFFERENT religion), well, I’m sort of used to contempt from that corner.


  15. MEA says:

    Hubris is overweening pride. It’s not a term of comtemp, but a statement of fact — as in Achilles’s conduct, far from being becoming to a warrior, is hubrist, and will not end well.

    The ancient Greek on the steet might think differently, but I believe that the philosopher’s of the Golden Age of Athenes would state that if you belive human being are co-creators with the God, stating you are the god’s equal is not an act of hubris, but if you were to state that you are superior to the Gods as a creator, that would be an act of hubris.

  16. Fern says:

    OTOH, MEA, it also includes the sense of violating moral laws – like Achilles’ corpse abuse. That’s why I feel contempt in the word.

    And now I’m going to have to run the idea of Tikkun Olem by a Hellenic Reconstructionist friend, and see where THAT discussion goes! I love this blog.


  17. MEA says:

    I’d stick draging the corpse of your enemy (esp. a worthy) one by his heels around the city he fell defending under conduct not becoming, etc, along with his greed of Bright eye’d what’s her name — in the context of the poem, of course.

    Not at all sure where TO fall in this, though the “what a piece of works” (deliberate mistranslation) suggests that healing the physical world would be cool — and perhaps the Golden Mean would apply too. Please let us know what your friend has to say.

    What worries me about live after PO is not that we’ll kill each other for the last cup of Starbucks coffee, but that there will be no one left who thinks it matters what hubris (and other metephyscial concepts) is and how they apply to us.

  18. MEA says:

    More I think, the more I realize that I don’t graps who is directing comptem at whom in this. At first I thought those calling hubris were also slinging contempt, but now I wonder if you mean hubris is an act of contempt. Also wondering if you are talking about religion in a wider context that a moral distilation of Greek thought with regard to those dwelling on Olympus.

  19. Brad K. says:

    When we talk about the climate, and what the US must do, remember we aren’t the only ones using the atmosphere. Prudent and cost-saving measures, should be fairly easy to sell, like insulation, adaptive roofing coatings or rooftop gardens or grasses, geothermal energy for heating, ocean thermal pumps for electricity generation, wave engines for capturing energy, perhaps orbiting solar wind collectors.

    But aggressive goals are meaningless, without compliance by countries engaged in more methane and carbon production than the US – especially Africa and Asia who are actively engaged in deforesting their continents for charcoal for home heating and cooking, and for lumber. Brazil reports destroying another 1,000 square miles of tropical rain forest last year.

    To talk about draconian measures and significant sacrifice seems off-topic – unless the actions are appropriate to the total global effort. This may have been the single most stupid failing of the Kyoto accord, shared by cap and trade proposals. Either everyone reduces emissions, or the emissions really aren’t a problem. Any choice about this one can produce emissions will-he, nil-he, is arbitrary. Picking any group – even the ‘group of the United States’, and say, “sacrifice to save our planet”, and turn to another and say, “Continue as you were, for now”, and neither group will respect you.

    The argument that we can and must reduce carbon emissions may well be valid and true. But telling 3/70ths of the world they have to cut back, regardless of what the rest do, looks ineffective. The venal will point out that where we hurt our economy trying to comply with probably arbitrary goals, we give our enemies a de facto weapon just for ignoring the issue.

    Most Americans, I think, have at least some appreciation of how fragile our electric utility infrastructure is. We understand the value of limiting increases in electric demand. Same with fossil fuels used for transportation and heating our ice shack, er, homes. Conservation will be a fairly easy sell, especially as additional interest increases research efforts in those areas.

    Politicians, however, tend to float atop hot topics. With climate warming science remaining clouded by suspicion – some of us still recall the initial Clinton-era report of 2,000 pages signed by all those scientists that concluded more study was needed to determine the certainty, the degree, and the source of global warming. That same report, was seldom referred to. Instead, the Clinton White House prepared a 200 page summary (not actually signed by the contributing authors), concluding that Global Warming was a direct threat and caused by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.

    More recent research confirms the summary. It also disputes it, and confirms the original study. Sen. Coburn (OK) tells me that some findings indicate we are in a global cooling trend. NASA reported more than a year ago that all planets in the solar system are warming – implying that greenhouse gases may or may not be significant in climate change.

    We recognize that it isn’t enough to quit smoking. We have to demand a non-smoking workplace. And a non-smoking place to eat at a restaurant, and non-smoking rooms in a motel. How then, do you convey that America must “quit/radically alter emissions” without also addressing the serious emissions and deforestation issues that affect the atmosphere?

    I am not convinced that those advocating cost savings and leading the way to lower carbon footprint awareness, technology, and best practices, that can be applied around the globe from economic necessity, don’t have a more effective approach.

  20. vera says:

    Ah, Brad, if we depend on the politicians and their “accords” we are surely sunk. — I think Gaia will do what Gaia will do, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. Could we be gentler on her? You bet. Is the current system capable of it? No. The current system is *based* on her plunder and rapine.

    Fern, hubris is not a religious term.

  21. PKS says:

    Love the work and writings you do here, let me say first.

    I don’t know if you or any of your readers have seen Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars, but it’s a hell of a read.

    He opens up by talking about how, in the year or so he spent researching this book, he realized that most climate scientists are privately terrified, because all the predictions of global warming models are happening much much faster than people predicted even 5 years ago.

    For example, (correct me if I’m wrong here, going from memory) the IPCC 2007 report (the one that won the Nobel and all that…) predicted that the arctic would be ice-free in late summer by 2030 or so.

    Now it’s beginning to look like that might happen by 2015 or so.

    And, of course, a warmer arctic means sun shines down on black ocean and absorbs 90% of sunlight instead of shining down on white ice/snow and reflecting 90% of sunlight. So all your positive feedbacks start kicking in.

    One of the conclusions that Dyer suggests in Climate Wars is thus:
    1) if we don’t keep the temperature this side of 2 degrees increase in warming, all the positive feedbacks kick in (methane and CO2 in permafrost etc), and we lose control of climate change. If we get > 2 degrees of warming, then it doesn’t matter what we do with our emissions, runaway climate change becomes inevitable.

    2) to keep to < 2 degrees of warming, we need something like an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2030. Why don’t we just count on divine intervention to save us?

    3) This means, we’re going to have to ‘cheat’. It means “geo-engineering” ideas like orbital mirrors, seeding the oceans with iron oxide to stimulate growth of microorganisms that suck up CO2, and (the most likely, and cheapest option) dumping sulfates into the stratosphere with aircraft or weather balloons.

    Let’s face it, talk of serious hardship-inducing reductions in CO2 emissions is the kind of thing that has no historical precedent.

    Yes, we’ve been through WWI and WWII, and all the hardship that went along with that. But that was a tangible, identifiable threat, in the here and now.

    To talk about a climate change/emissions reduction treaty, you’re asking the current generation to make sacrifices for the benefit of their grandchildren. Now, people talk about this, but nobody really does this.

    On top of that, to have any kind of fairness to this sort of international treaty, you’re going to essentially have to ask the industrialized countries like western Europe/N. America to reduce their emissions while allowing China/India/Brazil/et. al. to slightly _increase_ their emissions.

    This is about as hard as cooperation gets. The much-needed post-Kyoto treaty is going to be a wealth transfer from current generation to the next generation, and simultaneously asking rich countries to make sacrifices in order to increase the standard of living of ‘those people’ in the developing world.

    Now, while the developed/rich countries of the world screw around and stall on this sorta treaty, how long do you think Brazil or Indonesia or Bangladesh will wait before they decide it’s time to dump SO2 into the stratosphere with weather balloons?

  22. Sharon says:

    Re:China, India, Africa et al – Brad, I tend to disagree with you – have you seen the recent Chinese report that makes precisely the argument that they are willing to reduce emissions – although not below the level of meeting basic needs. Up until now, the rich world’s argument has been “we’ll be cutting back a little on our showers, you need to stop trying to bring electricity and running water to your poor.” That argument is doomed to failure – period. China, India and Russia have made it clear that they will not accept a radically double standard. So the question becomes how do we get the world to something that even remotely resembles a single standard – enough to be politically feasible. And that’s my particular interest here – I think that the narrative of climate accord has, thus far, run precisely contrary to the one you describe – instead of placing all the demands on the rich world, the rich world has used the fact that the Global South, having received their media exports, now wants something like the lifestyle as an excuse – China is often our rhetorical reason for not acting on climate change. This is ridiculous – most of the warming we are experiencing right now is from emissions made decades ago – that is, by us. We led the way into this mess, if we won’t lead out, there’s no way out.


  23. WNC Observer says:

    I hate it, it is tragic, but I’m afraid we must face up to the reality of it: We’re cooked.

    Most of the damage has already been done, we are apparently already past a tipping point, and the global climate is going to change in a very unfavorable way.

    It is the old Prisoner’s Dilemma non-zero-sum game. If the whole world cooperates together, then we might just have a real chance to at least mitigate. However, the temptation is to leave it to everyone else, continue with BAU in your own country, and reap the profits, while everyone else is stuck with the sacrifice. In non-zero-sum games, everyone usually loses. Absent an effective world government (which isn’t going to happen), whatever is done will be done by too few, and thus be too little, too late.

    At this point, we had best just focus on preventing our extinction as a species, which is starting to look like a real possibility. I don’t know how many species or ecosystems we can remove before the whole web of life collapses, but we had better find out, and do whatever it takes to make sure that we at least level off well short of that point. As Samuel Johnson said, the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight wonderfully concentrates one’s mind. Maybe the prospect of extinction will have a similar effect on humankind’s collective consciousness.

  24. Claire says:

    Well, things don’t look good at all – I just read the post on Grist that you referred to. But I also believe that sacrifice, treating unseen people and future generations as being as real as each of us is, is possible too. Probably more prevalent than any of us realize, because the dominant tale carried by mass media is get yours now while you can.

    My DH and I have reduced our natural gas consumption by 62% compared to our 1990 consumption. We’ve reduced electricity use by 37% compared to 1990. This is with all mainstream technology. Our house looks like any other. No one can tell we’ve done anything till I tell them our electric or natural gas bill. We still have a fridge, hot water heater, central AC even. At this point, we still use them.

    To get where we are now, we sacrificed, in the sense that we spent the two inheritances we’ve received to date on very energy-efficient appliances and on a very thorough program to seal all air leaks, seal and insulate ductwork, and add lots and lots of insulation. That was instead of spending it on “something for ourselves” as mass media advertising would have had us do. In some sense it hasn’t really been a sacrifice, though, not when our last month’s electric bill was $22 and our last month’s natural gas bill was $115 (both very low for this area for wintertime). We do sacrifice a little since we keep the thermostat at 65 degrees during the day (58 at night). We also use AC less than most, but not none. We live in Missouri, where summers are reliably hot and humid and most people run AC for three or four months. We usually run ours for 3 to 6 weeks depending on the summer.

    But I think we still have to do a lot more, and the next bit will be much harder. We have to reduce driving more than we have, maybe to almost zero, difficult in our large metro area where many of our friends, and our Zen Center, are 20 miles from home. I can stand loss of AC as the basement stays cool, but loss of heat in the winter … we’ll glass in the south facing front porch and that will help at times, but I will miss central heating a whole lot, and central hot water more. We’ve camped without refrigeration, but right now we depend on it as our cooking and eating style involves making enough for leftovers. But if I didn’t know how bad things are now and how much worse they are likely to get, I wouldn’t be able to push myself to make these last choices (keep reminding me I need to!). The first set weren’t nearly the sacrifices that the last set will be. I think Sharon’s point is a good one: unless we let people know the enormity of the situation and acknowledge that it will be very difficult to make the changes it looks like we need to make, no one will want to sign on. I think she argues too – certainly it’s in D & A – that we gain some things as well with the sacrifice. So let’s be as honest as we can be, yet remember to offer that some good comes out of this even for us – less money spent on wasteful stuff, hopefully closer friendships, family relations, and community ties.

    In the end, Gaia has the last say. So we can also acknowledge we aren’t in control, we don’t know for sure what will happen, whatever we do or don’t do. One of the things we need to give up is certainty. Our hold on life, our place in the universe, is far more precarious than we like to think. With lots of cheap energy, it was easy to think we had control. Remembering in our bones and being that we don’t have control, really getting in touch with our fragility, may be the most difficult and most necessary thing for us to do. We don’t know what the future will bring, but we still need to do what the moment needs from us.

  25. andy says:

    after 5 years of living with the land, and 5 years of reducing our carbon footprint and becoming subsistence farmers, its hard to see my low carbon reality now as poorer or less.
    we have abundance in so many ways.

    but we had to leave the UK to do it, as uk planning laws dont allow people to live on their land.
    land reform is what is needed to offset peak oil

    the future may mean less of some things – plastic crap, stupid jobs, stress, living off someone elses labour – but if we start making the changes properly now, we may find that we gain more of the things that really matter – healthy food, excercise, community, free time!

    unfortunately though, we are perhaps in a bind, as switching to a land based society will take energy and worsen climate, so most of us probably have to make the best of where we are now?

  26. Joseph says:

    Great post, Sharon.

  27. vera says:

    “we lose control of climate change”

    We’ve never had it to start with!

    “If we get 2 degrees of warming, then it doesn’t matter what we do with our emissions, runaway climate change becomes inevitable.”

    And what the heck does THAT mean? The earth and humanity have survived all manner of global warmings. Put a sock in it, panicmongers!

    The real danger is wasting our remaining resources on green gadgetry. Bah humbug.

    Claire, you got it right. Certainty is what gets us every time, and you bet there are people all lined up to profit from the coming “green” bubble.

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