The Climate Divide

Increasingly, [if you’ve got] green [it] means that you’ll probably get by, while others, because of geography or more likely a lack of resources, deal with the fallout from your resource over-consumption. From the dotearth blog:

the climate divide.” This is the reality that the world’s established industrial powers are already insulating themselves from climate risks by using wealth and technology accumulated through economic advancement built on burning fossil fuels, even as the world’s poorest countries, with little history of adding to the atmosphere’s greenhouse blanket, are most exposed to the climate hazards of today, let alone what will come through unabated global heating.

Like so many things, this situation is highly unjust. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be moved by a sense of social justice. Doing something about a situation you know doesn’t or won’t  effect you personally is the definition of conscience, and hundreds of millions of people live by its code. It’s the way poverty and racial inequality were finally addressed in this country – not simply because so many people got fed with living in poverty or being discriminated against. But also many other people were sufficiently appalled by both or either that they, too, decided that the collective we had lived through, seen and profited from this situation enough, and cast their lot with the cause of justice.

Of course, there were  many people still, not more but many, who felt that those who suffered might yet should suffer more, who were unmoved by the bigotry and oppression and who didn’t want to move too quickly against these or any other injustices. Not quite yet or maybe not at all. And they are still with us, and can be counted on to slow down the climate change debate by emphasizing what we will lose by addressing its root causes. But this is not the collective we, present or future. To unravel the ambivalence about global climate change from a general lack of conscience on other matters would be difficult. And maybe it’s just a coincidence. But it’s probably a greater divide, one we know well, one whose challenge has several times inspired us. And may well again.

Math Lesson v. Popular Garbage

Now, popular garbage can and does take all kinds of forms. In this case, it’s Superfreakonomics, the swftly-selling follow-up to Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. A counter-intuitive take on economics? Whoa, count me in!

Panned in all the finest establishments, not least (and maybe the best) by Elizabeth Kolbert in the current New Yorker, the new book has all of the appeal of high-minded contrarianism for the too smart to think mixed with the feel good ease of shortcuts to to problematic solutions. Consider the promise of certain geoengineering solutions to the AGW set (The denierati, in common parlance). Anyway, Kolbert slices, dices and disposes, but also gives the nod to one of Levitt’s colleagues at the University of Chicago, Raymond Pierrehumbert.

In an open letter published to RealClimate, Dr. P-h brings it:

By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics , but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing. I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example.

He then goes on to quote-unquote do the math, to show that Levitt and Dubner’s refutation of solar energy capture solely on the basis of the waste it generates is yet another example of making us play a game of ‘fool or liar’, in which he respectfully eliminating the possibility they are fools. He even shows his work, by manner of screenshots of wikipedia searches and other applications of The Google.

So, to recap… the tally after 4 innings

Math lesson: 1,  PG: infinity- 1

But PG is definitely on the run.

Zwischenzug

A San Francisco couple challenges the Waxman-Markey climate change bill wending it’s way through congress. Yawn.

A San Francisco couple who are both lawyers for the EPA challenges the Waxman-Markey climate change bill wending it’s way through congress. Scandal.

Check out the video in question. After the scary music, they offer disclaimers about not representing the government or speaking for the president. And I can’t tell from a straight-up amateur video that these people are any more overzealous or weird than the editorial page editor of the Washington Post Kaplan Test Prep Daily. They work at the EPA, and have for many years. They have strong opinions about cap-and-trade – they think it won’t spur the urgent technological innovations and investments needed to usher in the mammoth energy transition necessary to drastically reduce carbon emissions.

At some level, I don’t care how amateurish their videos might be – which also means that at some level, I do.  But I’m sympathetic to the argument that the bill, which gives away emission permits, doesn’t do enough. The EPA has every right to make sure their employees aren’t misrepresenting official policy – precisely because what their employees say carries more weight. That being the case, I’m interested in what they think. Most of what we hear about the climate bill is how much passing it will damage the economy. You can imagine that a couple of climate change deniers who were EPA lawyers would be feted as dissidents and we, treated to a new round of cable cause celebre. Harnessing the power of n, where n is anything other than coal or petroleum, will necessarily revolutionize much what we see and do. How are we possibly going to accomplish it? Let’s argue about that for a while.

Eco-Sikhs

Our government bails out sprawl and congress picks up two one more progressives (but two Dems) in overnight voting, but the news here is the role of religion in the climate change debate. Leaders of the world’s major religions have gathered at Windsor Castle to discuss ways in which the faiths can impact (in a positive way, more on that distinction in a minute) efforts to combat global climate change.

Much of the discourse over climate has been focused on gigatons of gases, megawatt hours of electricity, miles per gallon or details of diplomatic accords or legislation. But  Olav Kjorven, an assistant secretary general at the United Nations involved with the meeting, spent the last year visiting religious orders around the world to see what faiths could bring to the climate table. The answer, Mr. Kjorven told me, is a lot, and not simply in prayer.

Religions, he explained, run more than half the world’s schools, so tweaking a curriculum to include more on the environment can have a big impact. Their vast financial holdings provide leverage and capital for investments with environmental or social benefits. At the conference, which ends on Wednesday, many faiths will be  announcing long-term plans to make more of an impact in an arena that has not tended to be a top priority.

What was it Mom always used to say? Yes… but. Granted, there are religious people around the world who are taking the threat seriously.

Of our very own countrymen especially, however, these are the folks who are greatly uninterested in the impact of man upon the Earth, even as they/we subscribe to a divinely-inspired caretaker role. I get this whole ‘dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air…’ thing as it extends to super-sized mega churches surrounded by oceans of pavement amid seas of sprawl and entitled consumption of limited resources, but it leads to super-sized mega churches… . Anyway, I used to think the funniest thing was how the mega-churches labeled themselves that way. Now, not so much.

Churches may end up being the last refuge of climate change denial, or at least indifference. So much despoiling of the earth and its inhabitants has been committed beneath its aegis that it may be impossible to turn that around and begin to use it as a force to un-despoil. Conceding any of that would seemingly undermine too much. And imagine a sermon whereupon the minister looks up in the suspended Bose speakers and recessed lighting 100 feet overhead and asks his fellow congregants if they need all of that to effectively commune with God and whether the energy they put into what they’re wearing or how they arrived there has anything to do with the planetary crisis that has the liberals all in a tizzy. Me neither.

But how do they/we broach that subject? How do we connect the very trappings of our holy communion [obviously, not limited to religion] to the waste we’re laying?

Open Up the Till

And give me the change you said would do me good.

Picking up on a trend that came up last week, another energy company decides the Chamber is just not the disco floor it once was:

Exelon, one of the country’s largest utilities, said Monday that it would quit the United States Chamber of Commerce because of that group’s stance on climate change. It was the latest in a string of companies to do so, perhaps a harbinger of how intense the fight over global warming legislation could become.

“The carbon-based free lunch is over,” said John W. Rowe, Exelon’s chief executive. “Breakthroughs on climate change and improving our society’s energy efficiency are within reach.”

En garde, Monsieur Rowe; them’s librul fightin’ words if ever there was any. What might have starched these corporate britches?

What appears to have touched off the utilities’ withdrawals from the chamber was a recent article in The Los Angeles Times that cited chamber officials who called for a “Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century” about the science of climate change. The Scopes trial was a clash of creationists and evolutionists in the 1920s.

Well, that would do it. One thing Leading Companies of Today™ cannot countenance is looking like yahoos – and I don’t mean a second rate search engine. Roy wrote recently about a new book on the Republican Party’s embrace/implosion at the hands of fundamentalist Christians, and this can be thought of along similar lines. What’s a healthy dose of the crazy, and how long can you ride it? The advantage gained to a political party, or a group of companies, by riding herd on the rabid willingness of zealots to say and do anything in pursuit of shared ideological goals can be measured in months. [This especially true when the shared goals are orthogonal – that is, mine aren’t yours and yours aren’t mine but they intersect in a way that we look like friends… even though I know you are crazy.] Corporations, far more nervous than politicians, know this, enter into such pacts far more cautiously and are quick to flee as the dial gets turned up. While it may have appeared that the GOP had secured the future of the country just a few short years ago, what they had actually secured was the limits of very finite, though quite enthusiastic, support. Politically, it was crazy from the go.

It’s not as though coporations are or should be considered paragons of ecological virtue. They just don’t want to look like idiots in a way that costs them money. And that, my friends, is what we call a teachable moment.

Being Cool about Warming

The whole idea that some morning arrives when everyone sees the light on climate change is all very… hopeful, especially as we harbor so much know-nothingness in our midst, and ring it with the implicit honor of supporting various points of view when it should rather be ridiculed into the obscurity it more properly deserves. When Inhofe goes to Copenhagen and makes a complete jerk out of himself, will that be the last straw? Will his fellow countrymen (you know, us/them) finally have seen enough of such antics? The question is almost self-refuting. Here’s Krugman today:

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

It’s a pity that we can’t just drift back into politics on this, and rely on the responsible parties within government to act sensibly, with an eye toward the future. But to do so is to redirect oneself toward the conundrum, to see this is actually where a great amount of the stupidity, cupidity and brazenness is coming from. Our politics allows this to be just another right/left food fight, and so there’s little to avail there – and a great number of Amur’cans do refuse to support anything endorsed by Al Gore. That’s just our dumbness coming through. We’ll have to wait until it shows up on our one actual and true radar – we’ll-believe-it-when-we-see-it-on-TV, in the cool, detached aura of advertising. Unless or until global warming becomes a pitch device for corporate advertising, the one true and knowing entity in our culture remains neutral on the subject. As long as that persists, we can be sure there’s no need to make a decision.

But here’s the thing: what if the big multi-nationals don’t really have our best, long term interests at heart? Is there any history of that? When will they let us know that climate change is real? What is the window of remove, of detachment, on an existential question?

Say it with me: savvy enough to break through the idiocy.

When Re-Assessments Collide

As the well-documented nuttiness of climate change denialism spirals towards the outward bounds of making any sense whatsoever, Pacific Gas & Electric (of Erin Brochovich fame) decides even it has had enough and will not sign on to the craziness otherwise endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

In a letter to the Chamber, PG&E Chairman and Chief Executive Peter Darbee wrote:

We find it dismaying that the Chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored. In our opinion, an intellectually honest argument over the best policy response to the challenges of climate change is one thing; disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality of these challenges are quite another.

PG& E’s communications director attributed the pullout not just to craziness on the part of the chamber but also to the fact that other companies had recently made similar decisions.

In the past several weeks, two high-profile companies – Duke Energy and Alstom – publicly gave up their membership in the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy in protest over its opposition to federal climate change legislation.

Other companies that similarly favor climate change legislation faced uncomfortable questions this summer over their memberships in similar groups that have mounted aggressive campaigns to defeat pending climate bills.

So, something resembling a kind of consensus appears to be building among a group of American energy companies, if not a larger plurality of Americans and American businesses who are at least beginning to not pretend to not see the light. Alas, this does not include the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) has announced to National Review that he will be personally leading a “truth squad” to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, where he will make it clear to international leaders not to believe that the United States will pass legislation to deal with the issue.

“Now, I want to make sure that those attending the Copenhagen conference know what is really happening in the United States Senate,” said Inhofe. “Some people, like Senator Barbara Boxer, will tell the conference, with Waxman-Markey having passed in the House, that they can anticipate that some kind of bill will pass EPW.”

The extent to which reality has not penetrated our House of Lords would be unremarkable were it not for the solid case it is making for its obsolescence, to which we should listen and copiously note. Really, the inordinate and out of proportion voting power senators have, unless you are one, resembles nothing more than perceived nineteenth-century robber baron impact on killing ‘savages’, crushing strikes and building railroads wherever their interests took them. That senators from North Dakota and California or New York have equal say on matters that affect tens of millions of people in the latter vs. hundreds of thousands in the former is just what it sounds like: an anachronism. But one that is marching backward on practically every issue of the day. It brings into question the whole bi-cameral nature of our legislative branch – it was conceived in a vastly different time and functions poorly in our present one. Saying that doesn’t seem nearly as outrageous as Inhofe going to Copenhagen to shriek nonsense about March snow storms in Oklahoma.

Hand-made Global Warming

You know the feeling – I was reading the other night and made a note to remember to look up a word I came across. If you don’t look up strange words in books or read books with strange words, you’re probably not reading this. So I’ll never mind about that.

Anyway, anthropophagic. There, I said it. Gross, sure, but I didn’t know the term. It means, basically, cannibalistic, and I’m sure Kazantzakis what getting at something good when he used it. Sarcophagus is also kind of gross, when you realize what it means.

By the time I remembered to look it up (just now) I was on to something else, so I’m fitting it in a bit oddly, I’m afraid. The goal of eating is not cheap food. That won’t come as a shock, I hope, but it’s instructive in its way when we relate it to other activities we engage in. We have approached eating and food acquisition as activities that should be completed as quickly and cheaply as possible, with minimum effort, price and enjoyment. In doing so we have done great harm to ourselves physically but also we’ve lost many more delicious aspects of eating that has nothing to do with taste – though we’ve greatly mucked that up, too. No, here of course I mean that we have eliminated discussions and arguments about other cultural artifacts that occur during meals. This is a crucial loss, equaled only by the quality of the cheap food that we ingest, that must be farmed on a mammoth scale in order to be cheap, that require prodigious amounts of petroleum fertilizer, again, in order to be cheap. All because we no longer like to talk over dinner.

Travel is much the same. The goal of moving around seems to be cheap trips. Wrong. The goal of traveling is much more pernicious to our sense of place, pride and perfection that that. It enhances one and inhibits the others, or changes them into something more problematic and in need of further investigation and more traveling. And it can get expensive. But what moving about on the cheap does to us is the key, and especially when travel is prioritized only on the basis of its cheapness, its harmful effects are most on display. When you can move around on a whim and eat for nothing, you become impatient with all other complexities – of palate, of locale, of politics, of… sutras. You name it. When we turn to whimsical, cheap entertainments to pasturize our neglected imaginations, we greatly succeed.

And it’s hard to turn back, to break the habits of ease. We construct all-or-nothing scenarios where the choice is between McDo and hunting/gathering, and do our selves no favors by it. Put a little more consideration into where you go, how you get there, what you put into your body… pretty soon the monstrous implications of life on the cheap go away. There can be no hand-made global climate change. You just can’t do it, my friends.

You can look it up.

45°

Along with being the Trig functions for Theta, 45 degrees is also the number being thrown around for expected sustained temperatures in Australia, which many say is already experiencing the predicted effects of global warming. Massive wildfires, drought, flooding in the northern tropical areas – it’s not pretty.

Climate scientists say Australia — beset by prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves — epitomizes the “accelerated climate crisis” that global warming models have forecast.

With few skeptics among them, Australians appear to be coming to an awakening: Adapt to a rapidly shifting climate, and soon. Scientists here warn that the experience of this island continent is an early cautionary tale for the rest of the world.

A royal commission has  been convened to determine whether, in fact, global warming contributed to the deaths of 173 people in the nation’s worst wildfires ever and the 200 who died from heat the week before. Farmers are being pushed to the verge of suicide and beyond. Rainfall is down by 70 % in many areas. The commission’s report is due in August.

But in a country that gets 80% of its energy from burning coal, what can the report say?

Scientists are frustrated that such dramatic anecdotal and empirical evidence hasn’t sparked equally dramatic action from Australia’s government. They suspect the inaction can be partly explained by examining the nation’s relationship with coal. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and relies on it for 80% of its electricity. That helps make Australia and its 21 million people the world’s highest per-capita producers of greenhouse gases in the industrialized world.

Climate change researcher Cocklin, who is deputy vice chancellor at James Cook University, said the power of the coal companies and the massive receipts they bring in render the industry politically untouchable.

“The nature of our energy profile is one where coal features significantly,” he said. “There’s no denying it’s a massive problem. I don’t think in the public-political arena it is being challenged with the tenacity that you would want. No Labor [Party] government is going to challenge that.”

So, the prime minister pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% by 2020 (wouldn’t want to rush things). And I think we can relate. Australia is not just a case in point of what global warming will look like, but also an example of vast government inaction in the face of damning consequences. See one, see the other. Pleasant loud speaker voice: In the name of not kinking solid revenue streams, will everyone please step two miles in toward the middle of the country?

Do we actually think that’s going to work? If we don’t – what actually is the plan?

Planet Split Over Plan to Support Human Life

In the category of parallel universes, consensus continues to jell around the idea that measures to counter catastrophic climate change are really a bothersome nuisance thinking people would be better off ignoring. And while there is some psychological credence to accepting this plan, the downsides are also a tad unsettling.

How should one navigate this quagmire of conflicted opinion? With an automatic locking rear differential and an EPA est. 15/21 city/hwy? By contracting a conglomerate’s Greek Letter-plated consulting arm in order to reduce your company’s energy and water waste? Or how about an individual bubble all your own to ride out all those frosty Inland mornings when the tide washes in over the Handy-mart parking lot and you can’t find your crocs in time to leap over the puddles for your first Burp-y of the day? Okay… went a little too far with that last one, but for a Sunday we’re really putting our best cognitive dissonance on display.

While we’re putting our commercial proclivities to such good use, we might imagine a few ways to distract ourselves with causes that matter. Or the gymnastic possibility (nimble, strong) exists that we might not be able to this on our own. In tribute to an equality of possibilities, where no great consequence may outweigh another, where time is a mere illusion, a subtle question rests: when is a distraction not a distraction?