Jim Morris, 11/29/07
I have strong but confused feelings about all the issues and this essay is an attempt to work some of them out. Please feel free to comment on or add to this document.
In Collapse, Jared
Diamond presents extensive evidence that humans faced with a disaster that is
generations away won’t act to avoid it. Each chapter covers a collapsed
or threatened civilization—Easter Island, Norsemen in
We are thinking it’s not really our problem. Most
Americans alive today will be inconvenienced, but not devastated, by global warming.
Not only are the consequences coming slowly, they may be positive for some
locations. Warming might benefit Northern areas;
Not even the most adamant Cassandra’s have said the human race will perish, only that there will be major ecological, economic, and demographic changes. You might even convince yourself that your grandchildren will be smart enough and vicious enough to profit from the disaster.
Nevertheless, we expect the less developed world to suffer more than the developed world and the rich to suffer less than the poor simply because the rich have the wealth and organization to deal with change. This means we will be facing the perennial moral choice of taking care of ourselves or others. The poor countries will be facing the perennial choice of waiting for us to help or trying to take from us what they need.
People’s opinions about what to do can be compared along two dimensions: what they expect the climate to do and how much they care about all of humankind. Here are my guesses about where various individuals and groups I shall discuss fall in these two dimensions. [The links in this table work only if you’re using Internet Explorer. The links were created in MS Word, and non-MS browsers can’t seem to decipher them.]
The Spectrum of Expectations and Moral Positions
The graph below shows the temperature over
It is important to know that some of these temperature drops were very abrupt, perhaps five degrees Fahrenheit in a decade. They were sufficient to cause a great deal of turmoil. What if this century experience such an abrupt change?
Thousands of Years of Greenland’s Temperature
Climate change, with its revolutionary potential, has become today’s political football. Because it is poorly understood, even by climatologists, most people’s opinions about it are dominated by their political predilections. Without taking a position on the science, I’m going to spend the rest of this essay examining many different policy ideas circulating today.
If the scientists’ consensus is right, global
warming is accelerating and will manifest itself in hurricanes, wildfires,
famines, ice ages, wars, and even revolutions. For example, events in
First, let us review the scientific. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the agency of the UN recently awarded part of the Nobel Peace Prize, says green house gases began rising in 1800 and warming began in 1900, probably caused the green house gases. Here are the graphs.
The Level of Green House Gases and the Deviations in Yearly Temperature
Naturally, there is less agreement about the future.
For example, several climate experts guessed the chance of the
Scientists’ Predictions of Probability of
Without the Gulf Stream, Northern Europe would be as
Even if drastic climate change occurs, the implications for us are even more debatable.
Oil companies generally say that climate science is uncertain, oppose the Kyoto Protocol, and insist that future carbon policy should include developing countries.
A Pentagon study suggested using an abrupt climate change scenario as the basis for planning. If climate change is as abrupt as the one 8,200 years ago, and it happens in the next twenty years, we would have no time to pursue benign strategies. The study suggests that “No-regrets strategies should be identified and implemented to ensure reliable access to food supply and water, and to ensure national security.” They didn’t say exactly who would have no regrets. In the short term, the Pentagon would not regret having a bigger budget to cope with this scenario.
There is a plan for “Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic”.
Those who expect and hope for the End Times say “Bring it on!” They hope to be raised into Heaven by the Rapture, avoiding the inconvenience of Death, while the rest of us suffer. The sooner this happens the better. They are joined by space colonization fanatics who also look forward to an unlivable Earth.
Our president has recently softened his position on the issue, stating that we are addicted to oil. He probably still thinks that the results from Science are inconclusive. An altruist he is not.
One economist observes that very little of the developed world’s economies depend upon weather. He asserts that “Careful cost-benefit analysis, not panicky eco-action, is the right answer. The impacts of climate change on developed countries are likely to be small, probably amounting to less than 1% of national income over the next half-century.” Small and poor countries with large agricultural sectors are particularly vulnerable.
Less myopic scientists observe that all economies depend upon food and climate, regardless of where their particular money-making activities center.
A recent poll showed we believe the temperature has been going up (84%), the effects are imminent (62%), and the government should do more to deal with it (70%). Most of us (82%) think the problem is personally important but only a few (18%) say “extremely.” Only 1/3 of us would approve taxation on electricity or gasoline; 80% favor laws or tax incentives that change industry’s behavior.
However, as a presidential election issue, it is ranked
fourth after the
We could reduce warming by putting things in space to block the sun’s rays. This would be a multi-trillion-dollar effort giving NASA a more meaningful project than its traditional one of running a probabilistic human-sacrifice ritual. For an extra trillion we could put Venetian blinds in space in case cooling, not warming, turns out to be the problem.
A less expensive and less dangerous approach is to remove CO2 from the atmosphere directly. The most plausible method is to promote the growth of algae that consumes CO2. The charm of Geo-engineering, as it’s called, is that it works on CO2 that is already here so doesn’t depend upon reducing emissions and all the societal changes that will require. It might be expensive, but the burden would fall on all taxpayers rather than the fossil fuels industry which is better able to resist.
Strengthening our ability to respond to climate change is a sensible no-regrets strategy. Natural disasters happen, even if the climate isn’t changing. Recovering from things like hurricanes and wild fires is important in any world, and many places are not prepared for it now.
Migration has been every species’ adaptation to climate change. Scientists who saw the sub-Saharan droughts coming many years ago predicted the populations would be destroyed, but some survived by migrating. Of course, political strife is often a result of migration. The slower the change, the less the suffering.
Opposite to the Geo-engineers, naturalists object to anything that disturbs Nature. However, everything in Nature, including humankind who has a vote, disturbs Nature. Agriculture has had a large effect, for example.
It is a naturalist guilt trip to assert that because humans are causing climate change, they should fix it. Humans are probably partly responsible, but the only important question is the nature of future climate change and how we adapt to it or reduce it. Suppose global warming is being caused by non-human things like solar cycles. We should still reduce CO2 emissions if that will help us.
Reducing the production of green house gases is receiving much study. Carnegie Mellon professor Jay Apt has completed an extensive study of the electrical industry which produces more CO2 than any other sector. This table shows an estimate of the economic efficiency of various technologies to reduce CO2 emissions. The cheapest method is to simply use less energy, although some would argue that there are hidden costs. The surprise is how poorly solar power looks.
Cost per ton of CO2 avoided
State Conservation Programs
$5 – $20
$5 – $95
New coal gasification with capture and sequestration
$37 – $55
Pulverized coal with capture and sequestration
$73 – $83
$44 – $56
Natural gas with capture and sequestration
$75 – $100
$50 – $100
Direct Capture from the Air
$80 – $250
$400 – $650
Estimated Costs of Various CO2 Reduction Technologies
Another analysis identifies fifteen changes each of which could prevent 1 billion tonnes a year worth of carbon emissions, e.g. replacing 1400 coal electric plants with natural gas-powered facilities. Any seven of these measures would be enough to stabilize the CO2 level.
Many of us would like our society to work
better—politics freed from the influence of special interests, citizens
taking their responsibilities more seriously, everyone uniting for a common
goal. We see climate change as an opportunity for the
Thomas Friedman says “We … need to find a way to reknit America at home, reconnect America abroad and restore America to its natural place in the global order — as the beacon of progress, hope and inspiration.”
He goes on to say that the ultimate solution is producing
clean technology so cheap the Chinese and other developing nations adopt it.
Doing that that requires huge investments that only
Al Gore would like to see Reason returned to politics, as his recent book explains. He once said, “The climate crisis also offers us a chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise… When we rise , we will experience an epiphany as we discover that this crisis is really not about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge.”
Nordhaus and Schellenberger argue that the Chinese can’t be expected to
care about climate change until their basic life needs are met. Environmental
Utoptians suggest that world poverty must be reduced to solve the climate change problem. Jeffery Sachs claims investing $200B for 20 years could prove Jesus was wrong when he said “You always have the poor with you.” This might be cheaper than having wars with all the countries that profilerate coal-fired plants.
Simms argues that the concept of
This approach calls for unprecedented altruism. Since
do favors for others and expect repayment. Many species exhibit this behavior.
Unfortunately, the people of the future
· Kin altruists aid people with whom they share genes, parents, siblings and descendants. The effect is very pronounced in insect colonies because they share genes much more extensively. This theory would suggest that people expecting a large number of descendants might go green.
· Evolutionary altruists act to make their group’s pie bigger even if their relative slice gets smaller.
If being altruistic were a conscious, rational choice, it will not make you green because the beneficiaries are too remote in time and relationship. However, altruism is a genetically-conferred trait like the enjoyment of sugar and sex. Even if it is not fulfilling its evolutionary purpose, it may still control your behavior.
Bjørn Lomborg has been the most controversial author on this controversy-filled subject by arguing that there are much more effective ways to better the human condition, now and in the future, than mitigation attempts like the Kyoto Protocol. He doubts that climate change will be particularly devastating and advocates reducing disease and poverty all over the developing world rather than spending more billions to mitigate climate change. He estimates that the Kyoto Protocol would cost $180B per year counting lost economic growth while his proposals would cost only $52B per year. Not only would the human benefits be more immediate and certain, the increased wealth would leave everyone better able to adapt to whatever climate change comes.
If his science and economics are correct—they have been viciously challenged—his policy prescription is rationally unassailable. If we are willing to spend $180B a year as insurance against an uncertain future, we should be more willing to spend a third as much to alleviate conditions that exist today. The fact that we are evidently unwilling to do so suggests that climate change mitigation is an non-starter.
Religion cultivates agape altruism--good deeds that are unlikely to be reciprocated on Earth or have any beneficial effect on one’s descendants or local community. The Wordwatch Foundation makes a compelling case for religion supporting the quest for sustainability. An estimated 80% of humankind subscribe to some religion. Most religions have an anti-materialist message. They also have financial and political power—a lot more than scientists. Rick Warren recently said “As Christians, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to love our neighbors and to be stewards of God's creation.” He leads a group of more than one hundred like-minded evangelist ministers. Hey! Isn’t Bush an evangelist?
Creation, E.O. Wilson argues that science and religion
should make a truce and combine forces to get humankind past the coming
disasters. This presents an interesting challenge to both sides. Will they be
willing to ignore centuries-old conflicts to cooperate in solving a pressing
problem? It’s a little like asking the Shiites and Sunnis to stop fighting
long enough to get the electricity working in
I find myself more disturbed by the greed and stupidity of people than by impending climate change. I like the idea of doing a cost-benefit analysis using human lives and their quality as the measure, possibly discounted for the future. I hope that Lomberg, Nordhaus, and Schellenberger are not the tools or dupes of the oil companies.
I’m pretty generous, but actually feel conflicted about it. Only idealistic, altruistic activists who are willing to take on an apparently lost cause will work on climate change. There is unlikely to be much payoff for them or their descendants, and progress will be so difficult that they won’t receive many psychic rewards. The people I know with these characteristics are generally very rewarding to be around. Often their generosity to human kind spill over to particular humans, like me. So I’m planning to be a climate change activist even if it’s a hopeless cause. At least the company will be pleasant.
So far, I have been suggesting reasons an individual might act to solve climate change. Since several approaches require mass movements, let’s examine what it takes for a small number of innovators to attract followers. Most of the approaches discussed above already have adherents, so the question is: Which groups can attract followers?
The picture below shows a concept introduced by Evert Rogers. It posits that there are different classes of people based upon predilection to adopt any innovation and that they are distributed according to a bell curve. Innovators suggest or devise the change, Early Adopters try it, and their success attracts the Early Majority. The Late majority and Laggards get dragged in as the innovation becomes the norm. Moving an innovation from one group to another requires different techniques. For example, the Early Majority has to see real, provable benefit while the Laggards might be coerced by laws or pressure. Generally people require two strong pushes: hope of success and social pressure.
The Phases of Innovation Adoption
For example, for centuries, folk wisdom had it that smoking
was bad for you. Remember being told “Tobacco stunts your growth?”
In the 1950s scientists joined the Innovators and established a link between
smoking and disease. Controversy continued, but after the US Surgeon General
and Congress put the warning labels on cigarette packs, the Early Adopters gave
up smoking. I suppose I belonged to the Early Majority. When I moved to
The anti-nuclear war movement was a kind of innovation. The scientists who invented the bomb realized how threatening it was, but it took many years for the idea to sink in. The “duck and cover” generation will recall being terrorized by our government and media about the danger of nuclear holocaust. The scientists’ contribution to the public campaign was the Doomsday Clock, often shown on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It showed a clock face with the time some number of minutes before twelve midnight to signify a consensus about how close the world is to catastrophe. Whenever the clock moved backwards humankind believed a little more in the possibility of success.
Another “innovation” is Federal deficit reduction. For years Peter Peterson and others have warned of the dangers of the Federal deficit, but the public shows only sporadic interest. Ross Perot with his charts made the issue rise to the top of the public’s priorities in 1992, and the deficit was subsequently reduced by a Democratic administration. But we forgot about it after 9/11. This innovation has a hard time moving from Innovators and Early Adopters because the immediate benefits to the adopter are hard to identify.
In the case of climate change the Innovators are scientists and environmentalists who have identified the problems and have voluntarily begun to take measures to reduce their own environmental impact and urge others to do the same. The Early Adopters, careful but changeable people, have begun to appear in places, as signaled by Prius sales. By global population measures, the Early Majority have yet to act because they don’t see a personal benefit.
Baruch Fischhoff, of Carnegie Mellon observes
“Human behavior will shape the extent and effects of climate change. Communications will shape those behaviors. …
People tend to make reasonable choices if they:
get key facts in a credible, comprehensible form,
have control over themselves and their environment,
are judged by their own goals, and
have basic decision-making competence.
The viability of a democratic society depends on its ability to create these conditions,
empowering citizens’ to exercise their decision-making abilities to the fullest extent possible.”
He advocates a continuing public awareness program in which physical scientists continue to communicate unbiased environmental and engineering facts, social scientists identify the facts most relevant to citizens’ choices while assessing their concerns, and journalists convey the messages in compelling ways.
If you don’t believe social pressure from peers works, consider the following recent experiment
Asking hotel guests to “partner with us to help save the environment” by reusing towels elicits 30% participation.
Asking them to “join with the 75% of fellow guests” elicits 44% participation.
Asking them to “join with the 75% of guests who stayed in this room” elicits 49% participation.
This shows that a reasonable suggestion from a hotel is less persuasive than the behavior of one’s fellow guests.
What is happening right now, and what might an interested citizen do?
An obvious thing to do, suggested daily to us, is to reduce our personal consumption of green house gas emitting energy. Each of us should use compact fluorescent bulbs and drive a higher gas mileage car. However, this will have no effect on the Chinese. To affect them, we also need new technology and international agreements limiting green house gases. This will require political leadership we have haven’t seen for generations.