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Climate Change: Beating around the bush won’t put out the fire

December 6, 2013

There is just one reason we’re failing to address climate change. It isn’t discussed much. Nobody wants to hear about it. Nobody wants to confront it. Nobody wants to acknowledge the fundamental nature of the challenge. Yet we’re all edging closer and closer to unthinkable answers, no matter how hard we try to avoid asking the unthinkable questions.

Let’s start by considering business as usual. Not long ago, I was a quiet participant in a discussion between climate scientists, writers and others. The subject was economists, and why they were mostly failing to come up with anything remotely congruent to the scale and impact of climate change. Some concessions were made towards steady-state theorists like Herman Daly and CASSE. Perpetual growth was generally agreed to be either a bad thing, or merely unattainable given environmental and other constraints. E. F. Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics got a mention, but only in the context of its impracticability. The discussion ended with the participants no less bewildered than when they started. No answers were forthcoming, but then again, nobody asked the right questions: why is climate change primarily an economic problem, and why are all discussions really about how to preserve a model based on business as usual?

The premises of these questions are contentious, so let’s consider them. Climate change presents us with two options: mitigation (reduce emissions rapidly) or adaptation (reduce them a bit, maybe, but learn to live with the consequences – and tough luck on the poor people who can’t afford to). Pretty much all arguments about strategy, or even the need for one, are economic. It’s the cost of renewables, the damage to economic growth and employment, the financial setbacks for global markets, the burden on taxpayers, developing nations, differentiated responsibility and compensation – this is the language of climate change negotiations, of denial, and of business as usual. Every concern, every solution, every projection, looks at what we have now, and asks ‘in what form can we keep all, most, or just some, of what we now have – and what will it cost us?’

That was the gist of the complaint about economists; why don’t they come up with a realistic economic theory that conserves the best of what we have now, while prescribing a way of running things that doesn’t destabilise the climate? In other words, Business As Usual 2.0: a world in which economics continues to be the measure of us. A brave new world that looks as much as possible like the old one, but with less pollution.

We can ask the same question in a broader context; why are governments paying little but lip-service to the problem of climate change? Why does each conference end with little more than tissue-thin determination, acrimony and failure? What is it that makes climate change such an intractable problem?

The problem, as ever, is understanding demand rather than seeking solutions to the problem of supply.

Confusing Cause With Effect

Just before something fails, we may get warning messages. A crack in a wall; some slates falling; a door that won’t close any more. A car makes funny noises; smoke comes out of the exhaust; acceleration diminishes; fuel consumption goes up. Warnings can also be more personal: a pain in the chest; headaches or a feeling of nausea; blood where nobody wants to see any.

These are symptoms. They are not the problem that produces them. A lick of paint, wearing ear plugs when you drive, or taking painkillers, neither identifies the problem, nor fixes it. Diagnosis requires us to tell the difference between cause and effect, else we apply the wrong cure.

Global warming is widely discussed as a cause – of melting ice, extreme weather, floods and fires, rising sea levels  – but to create a proper analysis, sometimes we have to step back from the immediacy of the metaphorical cracks, smoke and blood. Each step back presents a wider perspective.

For example, Naomi Klein’s New Statesman article ‘How science is telling us all to revolt’ discusses the unwittingly revolutionary role in which climate scientists have found themselves cast. At least, that’s the role she assigns to Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, when citing a 2012 essay he co-authored with Alice Bows that appeared in the journal Nature Climate Change. “Anderson and Bows,” says Klein, “laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity”.

Irrespective of whether climate scientists are leading the revolution, or just bringing us messages about its inevitability, Klein makes telling observations about their likely ‘rewards’:

“We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of even their own research. Most of them were just quietly doing their work measuring ice cores, running global climate models and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as the Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that they ‘were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order.’

“But there are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science. It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists”.

Coming at the same issue from a different perspective, physicist Tom Murphy writes a wonderful ‘scripted’ version of a dinner conversation he had with a somewhat unfortunate economist seated next to him. The subject was economic growth, and the conflict between the scientific analysis of physical limits and the implicit expectations of mainstream economic theory. It’s a clever exposition, well-argued and nicely written, but as radical as Murphy’s argument appears, he still can’t bring himself to stand far enough back to see the whole picture:

“Under a model in which GDP is fixed—under conditions of stable energy, stable population, steady-state economy: if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world within which to live, doesn’t this constitute a form of economic growth?”

What Murphy describes is not ‘economic growth’, but cultural growth, the betterment of us all, both individually and collectively. His attempt to conflate culture with money is spin, perhaps informed by the nature of his story, but the commodification of culture makes such a conflation somewhat inevitable.

The Blame Game

Cause and effect have rarely been more confused than in the normally sensible Guardian news site, when US staff writer Suzanne Goldenberg wrote “The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests”.  (Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions, 20/11/2013).

She’s referring to a paper by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado (Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010). Unfortunately, she completely misrepresents what the paper’s actually about; assigning historically proportionate CO2 figures to those who dig, suck and squeeze fossil fuel out of the ground, and the companies that make cement.

Stating the obvious; the majority of CO2 emissions are not created by extracting oil, gas or coal. They are created by burning the stuff. And it is to the people who are using the stuff, or having it used in their name, that we must now turn to, for this is where the demand originates.

In a culture based on consumerism, its economy is driven by its consumers. Consumption is the reward for playing our part in an industrial society. Greenhouse gases are effluent, produced by our consumption, by our way of life. Climate change is an unfortunate by-product of getting what we want. We could describe our desire as shaped by capitalism, but that’s technically inaccurate, and loaded with the ideological baggage of left and right. Alternatively, we could call the engine of our desires ‘consumerism’, which is a reasonable fit.

There is however one description, one name for the driver of our desires, one root of all our demands (and the CO2e that is produced in the service of them) that seems more accurate than any other: materialism – where material possessions and physical comfort are more important than spiritual values. More important than fairness, or morality. More important than principles or probity. And – apparently – more important than the stability or sustainability of the environment.

Materialism is a reward system that we have to buy into, if you’ll forgive the pun. To get people to take part in a society built on a work ethic, they have to want what their disposable income can provide. This is a common measure of us: that what we own defines us, defines what we have achieved, defines our status and power. Our desire for ‘stuff’ is the main reason why China is building all those power stations – for both export and domestic markets.

Our profligacy, or our ambition to achieve it, is why CO2 emissions keep rising. How fast do you think emissions would drop if we stopped buying all the stuff we don’t really need,  stopped throwing away £2 billion in food every year in the UK alone, stopped chucking serviceable commodities in the bin because we’re overcome by the desire to have a newer, shinier one? Why don’t we consider not what we can do for our country, but what we can do without?

Our material desires are why governments are utterly impotent when it comes to climate change. No politician is ever going to deny their electorate the right to consume, since that’s the most fundamental clause in the social contract. Quite the opposite applies, especially in light of the examples set us: the logic of materialism seems inevitably to lead us all to adopt some version of Gordon Gekko’s aphorism that ‘greed is good’.  The key to electoral happiness is consumerism, and the promise of more of it. Since it requires cheap energy to make goods and services affordable, there is no option but to continue to burn coal, oil, gas and anything else that will keep the iPads and mobile phones coming off the production line.

Materialism cannot be fuelled by renewables if the desires of 8 billion people are to be serviced. Let’s spell this out: to fix climate change, we have to reduce demand by the consumers of fossil fuels – demands made by us, the individuals. To reduce that demand, we have to value something other than conspicuous consumption, find some other way of valuing ourselves and our lives. If we don’t, then the only way to maintain a materialistic global society is to consign a considerable proportion of its citizens to poverty by way of subsiding the rest. And that, folks, is ‘business as usual’.

We should also note the lame fizzling out of Warsaw’s recent climate change conference, in which the impotence of the global community is writ large, but in ever smaller print due to the sheer predictability of it all. No international conference is going to declare that the way to stop climate change is for us all to stop consuming, for consumption is a right we literally earn. Instead, we’re going to endure meeting after meeting trying to square the circle, to invent sustainable supplies to fulfil unsustainable demands. It’s an unsolvable equation, no matter how many meetings we convene, or how hard we try to convince ourselves that we can carry on consuming if only…if only…if only we can find a way to carry on just like we are now, no matter what the cost to future generations.

Science doesn’t give a damn for our petty concerns, however. The revolution is coming whether we like it or not, and when it arrives we’ll face some very clear questions we don’t yet seem ready to ask. One is whether we want to self-destruct, for violent catharsis is, as ever, the easy way out – “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” as Isaac Asimov put it.

The other question is more personal, and requires a more studied response: do we really want to continue defending materialism when nature itself declares the concept null and void? To put this a different way: what exactly about our current civilization do we really want to save? Industrial culture seems to have largely dispensed with the abstractions of spirituality, of the moral compass and the value of self-worth. Art is being turned into ‘product’. Robbed of idealism, left only with cynicism and disenfranchisement, we reduce climate change to another sordid obstacle between us and our consuming desires, between us and the fulfilment of our unending profligacy, our egregious trivialization of what it means to be alive.

Climate change is driven by our desires. There are now so many of us, we can’t possibly all experience the American Dream, even as we puzzle over the way the developing nations still want to buy into what is clearly a global nightmare. This way of life, where materialism defines us, is coming to an end. Now we must choose whether to retreat back into the darkness, whining like spoiled children, or embrace a more meaningful and sustainable measure of ourselves than merely what we can’t take with us on the one journey we all take in the end, and that no amount of denial will ever forestall.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2013 5:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Ideas for a new age and commented:
    Graham Wayne is correct. We need to act to confront climate change and the sooner the better.

  2. December 7, 2013 1:30 am

    Until mankind wises up and begins to get control of its solid, liquid and gaseous carbon wastes, nothing can change. Hence the general ambivalence of society and industry, whose everyday efforts only dig the climate/environmental hole deeper.

    There is a cleaner, smarter way to power mankind’s machines. Produced from society’s wastes, including CO2 and methane, and what’s in the average person’s trash can. It’s called higher mixed alcohol fuel.

    http://www.biorootenergy.com

    http://www.fb.com/biorootenergy

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