People will rarely acknowledge that an accustomed way of life is unsustainable except in the face of prolonged, devastating failure.It may not come as a surprise to some who know me that I like this observation. Reducing the chance that it describes the current predicament with regard climate change (but not only this) is probably a central task in moral and political thought and in activism. What, then, to do?
Al Gore has been trying to build an effective approach in the U.S. since at least the early 1990s. The Live Earth concerts yesterday which he inspired are supposed to help build mass awareness among as many as two billion viewers, or nearly one in three people on the planet. He is asking people to demand that all governments join an international treaty within the next two years that, by 2050, results in greenhouse gases cuts of 90 per cent in developed countries and more than half worldwide.
At least two criticisms are made of Gore's approach by those who share his concern. The first is that he goes too far in building alliances with those who are too much a part of the problem to be a part of the solution, including SUV manufacturers for sponsors, and celebrity rock stars whose message of 'revolution' is falsified by super high consumption life styles and role as icons of a culture of instant gratification. See, for example The artists formerly known as huge carbon footprints (how, by the way, does Madonna reconcile her belief in the scientific method with a faith which says sperm ejaculated in onanistic practice are abandoned souls that become demons?).
A second, less common, criticism is that the Gore's suggested emissions reduction target is insufficent. This sobering note from Clive Hamilton (which continues a dialogue noted and linked here) might be used to support such a critique. Hamilton notes that the report of IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (WGI) suggests stabilisation of atmospheric greenhouse gases below about 400 ppm CO2 equivalent is required to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial temperature. Since a concentration target of 400 ppm CO2(e) equates to a target of around 350-375 of CO2 and the current concentration is [about] 380 ppm, "we are already past the two degree threshold, and will without question go well beyond it. Even three degrees is looking very hard to avoid".
I support Gore’s pragmatism: you have to rally wealth generators to your side, and somehow wean them away from destructive practices of wealth generation; but I think there is something to both criticisms. Certainly, they speak to a gap between where things are and where they need to be. But being clear about the scale of the challenges and being an optimist-idealist that there may be solutions doesn't necessarily mean being dogmatic about what those solutions will be. What looks like a solution now may be superceded by events. Consider three technical(-political) issues and one political(-technical) one.
Nuclear power is endorsed by some who consider themselves environmentalists, while carbon capture and storage and geo-engineering are not. But these positions are probably wrong. While there may be some inaccuracies in the Oxford Research Group report Too Hot to Handle?, the fundamental points -- including that nuclear power is likely to increase the availability of plutonium in an unstable world, and that it ties up large amounts of capital that could be far more effectively deployed to reduce emissions in other ways -- are likely to stand the test of time. Both CCS and geo-engineering are sometimes described as 'get-out-of-jail-free cards' for the bad guys (although always not by the same people, and some apply the label to one but not the other). In my view (as outlined here and elsewhere), they probably be necessary evils.
[By they way, the use of probabilities to guide policy, which I adopted here, is strongly criticised by David Stainforth et el in Confidence, uncertainty and decision-support relevance in climate predictions and Issues in the interpretation of climate model ensembles to inform decisions -- Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A (2007) 365. See also Footnote 1]
Turning to a political(-technical) example, Kyoto 2 may offer a useful, pragmatic advance on the idealism of Contraction and Convergence. It 'parks' but does not abandon 'equity now' by allowing in the near term for rights to emit (under a declining cap) to go the highest bidder at auction. By not requiring that the rich world hand over lots of money to the poor world 'right away', it may be more politically workable than C&C and may offer a more effective route to reductions with lower transaction costs than the existing Kyoto Protocol and its likely successors. [To implement Kyoto2 would, of course, be hard and it could be as vulnerable to subversion by vested interests as some other approaches, but it is worth further consideration, as are carbon taxes. See here and here.]
Some of what ‘we’ (by which I mean self-defined progressives) do in the days after 07/07/07 is articulated in agendas like the one outlined by I Count. Even more essentially, ‘we’ need to go a lot further to combine (among other things) subtlety of thought, broad-mindedness and firmness of purpose.
Subtle thought because the insufficiently fine-grained kind can lead into traps such as a form of determinism. Thomas Homer-Dixon comes perilously close to it in the book in which he quotes the words I have put at the top of this post: by, for example, buying into the peak oil red-herring (see footnote 2).
Broad-mindedness because the challenges of climate change are seldom likely to be apparent on their own, but (like the three-dimensional chess game that Joseph Nye has described – see second item here: Imagining War) will rather be tied up with many other challenges requiring negotiation and struggle (see, for example, It was climate change wot made me do it). It’s vital, also, to fully acknowledge the limits of liberal democracies and the attractions and dangers of alternatives such as technocracy: a tension well explored by Louis Menand in his recent review of Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.
And firmness of purpose because, informed by what science indicates about ecological limits, ‘we’ must stick to core humanist values. Where cultural traditions, including the Abrahamic triplets and other religions, accord with these (through, for example, a genuine and lived commitment to the imperatives of justice, balance, knowledge and loving kindness) they can be allies, but forget any Deus ex Machina: people living in freedom have a responsibility to sort out this mess and help others adapt or die trying.
Footnote 1: See also Another Global Warming Icon Comes Under Attack (Science, 6 July) reporting work by Robert Charlson, Stephen Schwartz and Henning Rodhe which argues that future warming could be much worse than most the climate modeling used by the IPCC suggests, or even more moderate.
Footnote 2: Homer-Dixon also leans towards fatalism/determinism in suggesting that migration and the demographic transition in Europe is necessarily a recipe for extreme instability. The dangers are clear, but precisely this can concentrate minds on renewing alliances for progressive politics which will include but not be limited to confronting brutal practices such as ‘honour’ killing and other kinds of subjugation which reinforce oppressive and destructive behaviour.]