For the past 5 years, I’ve been talking about climate change to anyone who would listen. In November 2001, I said:
The very least that will happen is environmental devastation as CO2 increases and warms our planet beyond recognition. We’ve got to call a halt to this now. This is perhaps the most important public policy issue we face today, and we’ve just been given a new incentive to act. We should endorse the Kyoto protocols on global warming and start to take this seriously….This is serious, folks. It’s a matter of life and death, national security, and worldwide importance.
I never cease to be amazed at the ever intriguing shape-shifting objections to dealing with this problem. The worst objection, of course is denial. But beyond that, there is a whole range of reactions–complexes really–which have resulted in the burial of our drive to act. Even with the release of the IPCC report, the issue is still fraught with shadow. We are out of time and excuses, so we would do well to examine our psychology and why we have failed so miserably thus far.
Objection 1 – The skeptic:
I have friends who are skeptics. From simple relativism (“scientists can’t even agree with each other, they don’t know shit”), to the views of James Inhofe or G. W. Bush himself, skepticism knows no bounds. Michael Crichton did the world a huge disservice by denying climate change. His books have given him an air of scientific credibility, especially since he has become a strong voice against scientific manipulation and hubris. But Crichton is a writer of fiction, not a scientist. So though State of Fear might be a gripping read, its popularity may be also due to the fact that it feeds on our state of complacency.
Matt Drudge is another huge skeptic, and typically ridicules global warming on The Drudge Report. Whenever significant reports are released, (like the IPCC or Stern), he makes sure to give prominent placement to stories showing record cold or frost, or links to renegade scientists and their discredited theories. He is also quick to slam Gore or UN officials as hypocrites for their air travel. I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that while Drudge is entertaining, and he many times gets the scoop, and I can’t resist reading his site–he’s just a couple of tiny clicks to the left of arch-conservative demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
Another form of skepticism says, “Well, I guess climate change is real, but it’s too late, we will just have to live with the consequences.” This is another dodge which combines denial with helplessness. It’s another variation on our society’s growing expertise in victimology. Claiming it’s true but too late has exactly the same result as total denial. We do nothing.
There’s a bit of religion in climate change denial: Like religion, which tells us death is not real, global warming denial also places an unimaginable calamity comfortably out of the picture. Acknowledging human-caused global warming is similar to denying an all-powerful god (in that it’s denying an all-powerful nature). Atheism, like acceptance of climate change, puts man in the driver’s seat, as the sole responsible party for his own existence. It also acknowledges the Earth as finite. Many people can’t believe that on a planet as vast as earth, after observing how powerful nature is, that mankind could also be a force of nature and change the world. Now we know he has–raising CO2 levels roughly 100 parts per million since before the industrial revolution. Believe it. The denial is over.
Objection 2 — It’s a problem, but it’s being used to unfairly penalize the U.S.:
Usually, these types of arguments are also peppered with denial.
- “It’s just a U.N. fraud, trying to take away our money and justify greater control.”
- “It’s just a way to pass a world income tax.”
- “It’s a giveaway to the developing world, since they’re not covered by the protocol”
- “China doesn’t have to participate, so why should we?”
Well, let’s look at the China question first: Who buys the goods from China? So who is the true cause of Chinese emissions? The U.S. consumer. So not only does the U.S. consume 25% of the world’s energy with only 5% of the population, we are also responsible for a sizable share of China’s energy consumption, which is largely coal. So if we conservatively assign the U.S. an additional 5% because of our huge and growing purchases of Chinese goods, you have a grand total of 30% of the world’s energy usage by 5% of the population. This is America’s Hobbesian war of “all against all” on the rest of the world. Want peace? Want to bring our boys home? Stop this disproportionate use of energy.
Now this takes me back to the point of objection to a “world tax.” Why shouldn’t users of such a disproportionate amount of resources pay for the damages? Try and justify that one. You can’t. The denial is over.
Objection #3 — People are too busy, they can barely deal with life as it is:
This sounds really silly, but I’ve had people say this to me with a straight face. “People can’t even deal with their jobs, their kids, they get home at night and all they can do is collapse–now you want them to worry about this?” The reason why we should simply ignore global warming, a catastrophe unparalleled in human history, is ostensibly because we are “too busy.”
This I think has a lot to do with the fact that very few people alive in the U.S. today have ever dealt with what could be considered a true existential threat. It does not compute. In some ways, the entertainment industry (in which I work) is to blame. Disasters aren’t real until a film gets made about them. Most of us experience these things on a screen. So tornadoes, or hurricanes, or tsunamis happen to other people–not us.
It’s really simple. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy. We have to take care of our basic survival before we can worry about being ‘busy’ doing anything else. As the trite saying goes: “Deal with reality, or reality will deal with you.” The denial is over.
Objection #4 — It’s just too expensive, it would kill the economy:
Reference: Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change
Estimates of the cost of doing nothing range from $4 trillion, to $74 trillion, to human extinction. The point is, we are dealing with a range of possibilities, and we don’t know what our worst case is. A lot depends on what we decide to do. What we do know is that our planet has at various times been much warmer than now, and sea levels have been as much as 80-200 feet higher. Earth was also at some points covered by ice thousands of feet thick. So we really don’t know. This is an area I can agree science has not defined. It becomes useless to talk in terms of economic damage, however. Because human civilization may be changed in ways that make economic measures irrelevant.
If the worst case is extinction, if that’s even in the realm of possibility–even .001% chance, it should raise alarm bells greater than nuclear weapons, greater than the world wars of the 20th century. People regularly march by the tens of thousands for ‘peace,’ so why be silent in the face of such a greater danger?
But getting back to the economy, let’s assume that we CAN make a difference. If our civilization is at stake, don’t we have to at least try??? With a world GDP of $43 trillion, can’t we spend–say 1% of that to develop renewables? That would be $430 billion per year, about what the U.S. spends on defense when it’s not in a shooting war. Compare that to the $1.8 trillion (approximate) annual value of world oil production. Surely an expenditure of 25% of what we now spend on oil is worth it. That buys a lot of wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power, and a lot of biofuels. Every year, renewables would make up that much more of the economy. It could provide a new boom.
Where do we get the money? How about an oil tax? Everyone hates the idea, but everyone seems to love the idea of renewable energy. “Well that’s punitive,” some people say. Yes, it’s punitive towards those who wantonly pretend that their actions are without consequences. Someone’s going to have to pay-or we will all pay. Tax the oil leases, or tax it at the pump, or tax coal-power at the electric meter. Drive less, and replace a few light bulbs with compact fluorescents. The denial is over.
Objection #5 — The Libertarian Argument:
“Taxation is evil and immoral,” some people will say. No one should be coerced into giving up their money. Government has no right to take money at the point of a gun.
Well, let’s get government out of the picture. What if the entire world were a cooperative, and there were 6 billion individual stakeholders. How would they decide amongst themselves the allocation of resources? They’d have to establish a trading scheme, whereby shared resources and costs were allocated back to the individual.
Speaking of climate change as an individual, I have the rights to 1/6,000,000,000th share of the atmosphere. Therefore if I “use” more of the atmosphere than that, I have to get it from somewhere. The cost of getting that additional share of atmosphere has to be paid to the people who give up their right to use the extra share that I’m using. This is simple logic and common sense.
Libertarians participate in the denial by acting as if the atmosphere or fossil fuels are an unlimited resource. Since historically this has been the case, and resources were limited only by the methods and speed of their extraction, these people have some catching up to do. You can’t burn fuels that aren’t there, and and you can’t live on a planet that is too warm to support life. Therefore we have a common interest in maintaining resources which must be divided effectively. I’m interested in hearing how Libertarians propose to deal with this. Ronald Bailey over at Reason magazine seems to be getting the picture, but in general the magazine has been WAY BEHIND. Conservatives and Libertarians are using a similar strategy to combat the truth of climate change as the Discovery Institute has used against evolution: Teach the controversy.
Philosophically, this question is of the utmost importance. In reality, people who produce negative externalities are stealing from everyone else. They are taking away everyone’s right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live without the threat of climate-induced disaster. This is coercion. Pure and simple. This is hidden taxation. This is a “market failure.” We cannot be opposed to government coercion and then turn a blind eye to corporate coercion and outright theft which continues with impunity.
Various commenters to this blog have accused me in the past of being a “greenie” or subscribing to the “greenie religion.” This is utter hogwash. Shame on them. They are in denial. There is nothing “green” about not wanting the planet to become uninhabitable. There is nothing “green” in wanting everyone to pay their fair share. It is the only sane position of a conscious and intelligent human being. The denial is over.