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Is climate change the best thing to happen to civilisation rather than the worst?

May 30, 2011

In the Guardian, Damian Carrington suggests, rather belatedly, that we need a new economic model to stave off climate change (Climate change demands we re-engineer the world economy now). I don’t think there’s a hope in hell of this happening, and now I’m not even sure if mitigation would be the best thing in the long run. The rather fatalistic analysis presented here is also a contributory factor to the lack of posts recently, since I’m no longer certain there is anything worth saying about climate change that I haven’t already said, or that fighting to keep this civilisation going is actually worth the effort in the long run.

Damian

Surely by now it must be apparent to you, as I think it is to Monbiot, that mitigation simply will not happen. The chance to achieve the 2 degree limit disappeared like so much polar ice as the new millennium was ushered in, and no amount of good intentions will bring that about now, so I do wonder why environmental writers still keep plugging away at a cause as hopeless as an appeal to a denier’s rationality.

The societal effects of anthropogenic climate change can be extrapolated in the same way as we can for the physical effects of warming on the ecosystem. Let’s consider where all this is really going.

Early on in the thread, a poster made the usual (and baffling) reference to population, and how it’s never discussed – baffling because it gets a mention in every thread. What that poster failed to understand is that mentioning population growth and the pressure it puts on the environment is not the same as coming up with a viable solution that doesn’t involve culling the brown people preferentially, as Dorlomin pointed out. In other words, there isn’t really a solution to over-population, except the one that we clearly cannot bring ourselves to effect – intelligent cooperation.

Here we are then, all of us aboard the good ship Earth, and just like the oil tankers it is our inertia, both literal and colloquial, that will keep us on our current course and drive us to destruction, because in the same way that a tanker continues for 20 miles even after the engines are thrown into reverse, our so-called civilisation appears certain to plunge on regardless, no matter how many warnings we get, or how hard we step on the brakes even when some of us heed that warning.

* * * * *

I read somewhere that there have been 69 previous empires, all of them consigned to history. It is both predictable and perhaps inevitable that this latest empire, of electricity and global greed, will fall. Over the last year, I have come to believe that between the stupidity and venal self-interest of so many in the developed world, and the desire to emulate our stupidity and venality by the developing nations, there is no possibility at all that we can forestall the inevitable collapse of consumer-driven capitalism.

We are, collectively, too short sighted, too lazy and complacent, too ignorant and selfish, to do anything meaningful about the problems heading our way, and those problems are monumental, combining three intractable issues in one hammer-blow: population, AGW and peak oil. It’s three killer punches delivered, like a good boxer, in a deadly and pretty knockout combination.

And now I suspect that this is, in fact, the natural order of things. As civilisations come and go, so nature plays its part in aiding or hindering those species that cannot find some balance with their surroundings. I started by mentioning that nobody has a viable solution to over-population. People don’t have a solution, but nature does, by a self-regulating process which we are now invoking through our foolishness. Lovelock was broadly correct when he suggested that the Earth’s ecosystems will, under stress, balance themselves. Nature cares not at all for the alleged primacy and intelligence of mankind. The population problem will be solved, by us, for we are about to cull ourselves.

* * * * *

The premise of this article is that we need to devise and adopt some other economic model in order to alleviate the poverty of some 2 billion people, a model that doesn’t require those 2 billion to burn more fossil fuels to bring their standard of living up to something like that which we demand for ourselves. It wll never happen, and I think you know that all too well, which does suggest your good intentions in writing this piece will lead only where most good intentions take us.

This civilisation cannot change itself, cannot remodel its aims and desires, because we’ve spend several hundred years plotting a course we are now doomed irrevocably to follow to its logical conclusion. History says that conclusion will be violent, disruptive, destructive and extraordinarily painful. Our only hope, on a very distant horizon, is that by sweeping away the debris of a culture built on greed and inequity, those who follow will finally learn something from history, and build something better and more sustainable.

The coming apocalypse cannot be avoided. It seems quite inevitable, but the strange thing is that I am fast becoming convinced that it will be, in the end, a good thing for those who survive. I, along with several billion others, just won’t be one of them, and I guess we’re all the collateral damage of capitalism.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Watching the Deniers permalink
    May 31, 2011 1:44 am

    A tough thing to write, and to be honest it was that growing sense of frustration that lead me to stop Watching the Deniers. My frustration with the message of the David Carrington’s and the like is how hopelessly naive it is.

    We’re not going to overthrow an economic and cultural model that has been working successfully for hundreds of years. Only an external change will bring about rapid change.

    All these grand plans to overhaul our energy systems and economies in a planned, smooth transition over the next ten years are pie-in-the-sky fantasies.

    Sure – we must do it.

    But we won’t.

    As grim and fatalistic as it sounds, we need to think in terms of life boats. What and who can be saved, how will “we” live on a very changed planet.

    Lifeboat Earth.

  2. May 31, 2011 4:17 am

    You’ve summed up my frustrations perfectly. I never wanted to get into the climate debate at all and finally have decided to leave it alone.

    That all said, I’m planning to throw my efforts in Gen[A] (genadaptation.com) – in connecting the fragmented engaged global community (excluding deniers completely) and providing information sharing, I hope to find the required enthusiasm for meeting the challenges ahead (adaption mostly). It might seem like a long short, but without it, I’d have no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

    You’re an excellent writer Graham, feel free to contact me if you’d like to be involved (wow.the.moth [at] gmail [dot] com). I believe we can develop a genuine community level shift in behaviour that will work for an increasingly sustainable future.

  3. Watching the Deniers permalink
    May 31, 2011 4:49 am

    “…Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.

    The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially “dangerous climate change” – is likely to be just “a nice Utopia”, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.

    Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.

    “I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions,” Birol told the Guardian. “It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/29/carbon-emissions-nuclearpower

  4. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    June 1, 2011 6:08 pm

    So hello there Grayham, or as we say in Sweden. You did not post since quite a long time and I have been missing you and also have been busy myself so also did not post. You seems to be rather depressed by the way things turn out in the world and also I am sad to see that Watching the Deniers is having a similar opinion and even this so called Moth does leave the climate debate alone. But all three of you has been doing a good job on this subject and Moth has a good opinion when he says you are an excellent writer. So I am urging you rather strongly to stay with this climate change subject or maybe to enter into the co-operation agreement with Watching the Deniers and/or Moth to combine your resources and efforts to make them more effective. I cannot agree with Moth that you should exclude the so called “deniers” completely but that may be the Swedish liberal who speaks. My good friend Anna-Maria is sharing Moths opinion that these people should be taken care of by excluding them because this is too important. So in summary I hope you shall keep up the good works – I shall miss them if they stop!

  5. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    June 1, 2011 6:09 pm

    Actually my komment said “Hej!” as we say in Sweden but the Hej! seems to disappear.

  6. adelady permalink
    June 2, 2011 9:29 am

    I know you get fed up with this stuff, but it’s worth remembering some stuff about advertising.

    It takes 23 (or similar unexpected number) exposures before people even * recognise* the name of a product or service being advertised. If that name is of a shampoo, that recognition is a big step towards a consumer making a decision about whether to try it.

    This is not a difficult or complex matter. But people will say, I still like the one I’ve been using for eleventy years, I don’t like that company’s other products so this one’s probably not much good, I’m not old! why should I switch to something for dry or thinning hair – and on and on. Advertisers keep plugging that same product and same message for months on end. People get used to it and any original reservations subside under the familiarity of the message.

    The message about climate is not as simple as that for shampoo or food or clothing. So we can’t expect any initial resistance to go away in the same manner. Remember that for the conventional products, the ‘competitive’ advertising might oppose your brand name, but it reinforces general advertising for shampoos of any kind and food for various tastes.

    For climate, the picture is different. Never forget that the majority of citizens do accept the general message. However, the strength of that acceptance can be undermined by the constant barrage of opposing messages. No shampoo manufacturer has to overcome ads saying ‘Dirty hair smells better!’ whereas climate realists have to deal with unrelenting attacks from sophisticated organised opposition.

    I understand getting discouraged. But I think you should cut yourself a bit of slack.

    I’m deeply unhappy facing just how bad things will have to get before everyone gets their act together. However, I’m sort of optimistic that when the penny drops, things will improve rapidly.

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 2, 2011 1:13 pm

    Well folk, I’m sure I won’t be giving up writing altogether, but I do need to ensure that I’m not just harping on about issues that cannot be constructively addressed – those issues in other words that no amount of debate will change. I believe that the consumerist/capitalist economic model actually precludes any other options at present, and that only by the failure of such models can something new emerge.

    I am however grateful and appreciative of the nice comments, and thank you all for being so kind. Know that I have not given up hope, just changed what I’m hoping for… 🙂

  8. David Socrates permalink
    June 2, 2011 4:43 pm

    Oh dear. You guys are really depressed. It’s really sad to see all this negativism. Perhaps it’s just the nature of this particular blog and the people who are attracted towards it. But I hope that’s not really the case.

    Adlady talks about” unrelenting attacks from sophisticated organised opposition.” I have to tell her that that kind of thing is exactly what many climate skeptics say about warmists.

    In my experience, most people on either side of this debate are motivated neither by evil intent nor ignorance. The truth is that there are no real conspiracies on either side – just overwhelmingly honest people with a real difference of opinion. Most sensible skeptics are just as convinced that CO2 is not a major player in climate change, as most sensible warmists are convinced that it is.

    I believe that this issue is going to play out to a definitive resolution on a much shorter timescale than would be required to bring about the armageddon that Graham is worried about. Long before we get near that scenario, the question of whether or not CO2 really is having a serious effect on the world temperature will have been objectively decided and the debate will be over. So far there is no sign that the hugely non-linear increase in man-made atmospheric CO2 that has occured since World War II has yet affected the world temperature beyond what might reasonably have been caused by natural variation. But it may well soon do so (within, say the next 10 to 15 years)- in which case the world really will be forced to wake up to the threat and do something about it. But just suppose the opposite happens over the next 10 to 15 years and the alarming rate of rise we have witnessed from 1970 to 2000 abates and returns instead to the gentle long term average rise of 0.4degC per century that we had previously been experiencing.

    By the way, in case you think I am making up the un-alarming figure of 0.14degC rise per century, take a look at the official Hadley temperature series I have plotted out at: http://www.thetruthaboutclimatechange.org/tempsworld.html . Ask yourself, honestly, how you can be so sure that the sharp rise between 1970 and 2000 is going to carry on at that alarming rate for the next 100 years. I don’t think that you can say that from the data. But likewise, I don’t think you can be sure from the data that it is not. The fact is, nobody knows for certain either way.

    So my message is: step back a bit, like I have done, and reconcile yourself to the fact that the temperature record will prove it one way or the other inside the next decade or so.

    In the meantime do try to keep more cheerful and enjoy the rest of this wonderful life. And this wonderful early Summer weather if you happen to live in England.

  9. David Socrates permalink
    June 2, 2011 4:53 pm

    Somethign wrong with your system, Graham. Please do correct!!

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 2, 2011 5:38 pm

    Don’t blame me, or WordPress. Your text included some non-standard characters that buggered up the formatting (third para, closing i tag after the word ‘is’ – the tag had a space between i and / and the space could not be removed on its own). When I removed the entire tag, the problem went too. This affected the subsequent text – all of it – on the page, because the HTML container was affected, not just your post.

  11. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 2, 2011 6:34 pm

    Adlady talks about” unrelenting attacks from sophisticated organised opposition.” I have to tell her that that kind of thing is exactly what many climate skeptics say about warmists.

    Sure, but what they don’t have are the equivalents of Exxonsecrets.org or Oreskes Merchants of Doubt. People can say anything they like, but when it comes to evidence of outright deceit and disinformation, there is little or nothing that ‘skeptics’ have to offer. So, on the one hand we have proven, documented evidence of collusion, manipulation, lies, personal attacks on scientists, entire campaigns of disinformation and misdirection, much of it funded by fossil fuel companies like Koch, attempts to use the law and government to suppress and distort scientific findings (Bush, Inhofe, Cuccinelli)…and on the other hand, we have…er…what exactly?

    Some emails, perhaps, none of which changed science one jot? Is that it for the ‘skeptical’ evidence? And of course your ‘skeptics’ make the claim: this kind of rhetorical projection was common during Senate debates in Rome before Christ was born: accuse the other side of whatever it is you’re doing in order to obfuscate the issue. Nothing new, and if you want a really crass but obvious demonstration, read anything by Monckton, whose hypocrisy is beyond breathtaking.

    In my experience, most people on either side of this debate are motivated neither by evil intent nor ignorance.

    No, most ‘skeptics’ are motivated by such a diverse range of impulses it is very hard to generalise. But what they do have in common, and must have for their argument to work, is that there is some kind of conspiracy. In seeking affirmation of that which they already believe, they gravitate towards, and award credibility to, anything that supports the position they’ve already adopted. Then, because their position is illogical, they start dismissing anything that doesn’t fit with their world view – starting with virtually every bit of science on physics, chemistry and biology from John Tyndall onwards. This is denial, and the hallmarks are certainty, and a belief that they know ‘the truth’ about climate change, which is unfortunate.

    The truth is that there are no real conspiracies on either side – just overwhelmingly honest people with a real difference of opinion.

    Speaking of ‘the truth’, you might as well be making that claim in a parallel universe. To assert there are no conspiracies when they are so well documented is foolish enough, but to claim that ‘skeptics’ are overwhelmingly honest is just risable. Denialism – the word I must introduce now to make the distinction between them and real sceptics – is a thoroughly dishonest movement. I have been exposing deniers for many years, because they employ every tactic, every diversion and trick of the demagogues’ case, in pursuit of their own agenda.

    The distinction is easy to make; a denier will enter a forum and say ‘volcanos put out more CO2 than humans ever could’. They are corrected, pointed to authoratitive documents and papers e.g. USGS, and they shut up. Two weeks later, they turn up in another forum and guess what they come out with…? These people are on a mission – to defeat anthropogenic climate change. They don’t care how they do it, and for my evidence just review exactly what Monckton does get up to, along with Booker, Delingpole, Beck, Limbaugh, Palin et al. And are these public voices of ‘skepticism’ really your idea of ‘honest people’? Inhofe, who plagirised the work of others to create his ‘damning’ report? Morano, who called for scientists to be flogged?

    Most sensible skeptics are just as convinced that CO2 is not a major player in climate change, as most sensible warmists are convinced that it is.

    This is neither accurate as a generalisation, nor as an analysis. First of all, I don’t know what you think ‘sensible skeptics’ might be, but a dictionary definition would make redundant the word sensible, since scepticism by its nature is cautious, conservative, open-minded and non-judgemental. Anyone who is convinced of anything is not a sceptic at all. In my own case the only thing I am convinced of is that the scientific theories, models and empirical evidence point towards a very high probability of anthropogenic forcing. That can never preclude some other explanation, some other cause, but by God if there is one it is very well hidden and fiendishly obscure. And here’s the rub; sensible warmists are not convinced about CO2, they are convinced that the science says it’s CO2 (and equivalents).

    That’s the difference; your ‘skeptics’ claim that anthropogenic CO2e is not the cause fo climate change. What they can’t tell you, in that case, is what the cause is. In fact, they are convinced of something for which they have no evidence, no theory, no line of investigation or potential for discovery. Yet they do indeed ‘believe’ a number of things, including the role of CO2 being wrong, all of science being in collusion (for a variety of reasons), the whole thing being a scam of some sort, a government initiative to tax and control us, and more and more batshit nonsense all of which is irrational, has no evidence, no science and very little logic.

    I believe that this issue is going to play out to a definitive resolution on a much shorter timescale than would be required to bring about the armageddon that Graham is worried about.

    I don’t care what you believe. You are asking us to take the most appaling gamble with our future, and the future for all our children. You have nothing to back up your belief, I have 150 years of science. I’m backing the science, David – not punters who argue for business as usual.

    Long before we get near that scenario, the question of whether or not CO2 really is having a serious effect on the world temperature will have been objectively decided and the debate will be over.

    So will the opportunity to do anything about it, because by that time the damage will be irreversible. We are already in line for continued temperature increases even if we returned our CO2 output to pre-industrial levels tomorrow, because of the latency of the oceans in particular. Again, I point out the illogic of this: you have no credible explanation as to why science is wrong and the projections are unlikely, yet you would risk the future on your belief alone.

    So far there is no sign that the hugely non-linear increase in man-made atmospheric CO2 that has occured since World War II has yet affected the world temperature beyond what might reasonably have been caused by natural variation.

    I study the cryrosphere. Tell me the ice losses are ‘natural variation’ given the speed at which they are occuring and I’ll laugh you out of this forum. And then tell me what is causing this ‘natural variation’ because once more, I must point out you have not even a theory for the forcing behind this ‘variation’, let alone evidence.

    …the world really will be forced to wake up to the threat and do something about it.

    Just like we’re waking up to peak oil. Too fucking late. I thought intelligence would best be demonstrated by preventing the shit hitting the fan, not designing crap-proof brown overcoats.

    But just suppose the opposite happens…

    Why should we suppose that? What logic is there in thinking the laws of physics don’t work the way we think. More CO2e, more heat. More heat, more effects on regulating systems like albedo. We’re seeing the predicted early effects, and still people like you argue that we should wait. Every day we fail to address this issue makes it harder to sort out later, and much more expensive.

    Ask yourself, honestly, how you can be so sure that the sharp rise between 1970 and 2000 is going to carry on at that alarming rate for the next 100 years.

    By reading the bloody science. How can you be sure you know better than the people who do this for a living. I have enough respect for their work, their diligence, their dedication and their qualifications not to think I know better. I am not demeaned by accepting there are people who know more about some things than I do.

    The fact is, nobody knows for certain either way.

    The other fact is – all studies point to a very high probability in one direction – AGW – and very little if anything points in the opposite direction. This is not about opinion, it is about science.

    So my message is: step back a bit, like I have done, and reconcile yourself to the fact that the temperature record will prove it one way or the other inside the next decade or so.

    I know that already. It’s what I said in 2000. The temperature record has subsequently validated the science by continuing upward, aided by better instruments like Grace, IceSat and other non-terrestrial sources that are giving us much better information. Now I’m supposed to wait another decade, or two, before acting? Sorry, that just doesn’t make sense.

    But all that said, don’t worry. The thrust of my article was based on my becoming resigned to the fact you’re going to get your way and nothing at all will be done, so keep praying you’re right. And stock up on tinned goods.

    Footnote
    One last thing; a skeptic, having made the arguments you did, would be obliged to add another one, and this one always seems to be missing: suppose the science is wrong, and things are much worse than we thought? Your argument suggests the effects might be less than predicted. What happened to the opposite argument, to which any sceptic would be obliged to give equal weight?

  12. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    June 3, 2011 10:03 am

    Graham, this reply you make brings to my mind a bad remark by this David Cameron. Of course he was rather sexist when he said “calm down dear” but sometimes it need to be said! You have been writing for all ours benefit in the past but you must not become depressed by the burden you make for yourself or be too angry with peoples where you do not share the opinion. I find that working in the garden can help in this matter and also walks in the nature. Also of course sometimes some drinks can be of assistance. I can recommend a rather good Swedish product called Beska Droppa although one of my friends from England says it is like fuel for rockets!

  13. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 3, 2011 10:23 am

    Birgit – that’s very sweet of you, and thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I do get very involved in my writing, and I think it’s true that I get too involved, because my passion leads me to forget that there is a whole other world out there – in my garden 🙂

    So in order to stay a bit more balanced, I’m writing less and playing more music, and indeed I’m in the garden every day doing nice things. But I cannot imagine writing less passionately about something I think is so very important. I can imagine doing it without thinking it’s my job to save the world, one person at a time. That’s just self-importance, and as depressed as I feel from time to time, there is no excuse for losing one’s perspective.

  14. The King In Yellow permalink
    June 3, 2011 2:57 pm

    It does look pretty grim, with CO2 emmissions continuing to riswe even in a supposed recession (I don’t think the BRIC countries are though).

    But as they say: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

    Not even the latest trolls on CiF, and yes they are out and out trolls.

    All the best.

  15. June 4, 2011 1:19 am

    The King In Yellow: I couldn’t agree with you more – they want to bring us down so it’s the last thing we should allow to happen

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