Beginning today, I am taking a sabbatical from this blog and my involvement with climate change for a currently undetermined period.
After wrestling for months (years, my wife might say) with the Big Question of what I can or should do in the climate change fight, I’ve decided that the best next step for me is to step back, let the frustration and anger subside, attend to some personal matters and interests, and then reassess said Big Question.
If this sounds like Dave Roberts’ famous Goodbye for now, a.k.a. the “I am burnt the fuck out” post, then you get bonus points for being observant. I’ve been totally immersed in energy and climate research, writing, campaigning, etc. for just over 135 months, during which I worked far more weekends than I took off and accomplished far less than I wish I had.
I desperately tried to find a way to keep at this without a break. Write a book, leverage my computer-related writing and editing background to find some sort of writing gig (that didn’t require me to sell my soul by becoming one of the absurd deniers, even though I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing comedy), etc. In fact, I’ve developed an outline for what I’ve half-jokingly called “the book that needs to be written”, but it’s such a huge task to begin when you’re running on the last whisper of electrons in your battery and there’s such a dismal track record of climate change-themed books actually making a difference that even I can’t talk myself into attempting to push that particular boulder up a muddy hill right now. And as my wife will attest, I can talk myself into damn near anything.
So, I was stuck. I couldn’t bring myself to walk away, given the importance of this topic to all the children of the world — and, as I’ve said repeatedly, they really are all our kids, regardless of whose DNA they carry — yet I was so thoroughly, deeply burnt the fuck out that I couldn’t do anything of use to anyone.
I decided to lean on some of my e-friends, including climate scientists, communicators, and campaigners, for ideas. Virtually every one said the same thing: Yes, the climate change mess is really bad; no one really knows how to fix it; we have to keep doing whatever we can think of, just in case something strikes a spark. To say that the level of optimism among my contacts was low would be an almost laughable understatement.
My logjam-busting epiphany was triggered by a conversation with my friend Mark, who pointed out that it might be worthwhile to look at this like military service. You give it everything you have for a period of years, and then when your time is up, you hand the monumental and often unpleasant task over to others.
I am not at all ready to walk away, though. It’s simply too important a challenge, with almost incalculable consequences if we don’t get it right.
The answer, for me at this time, is to get some distance, do productive, non-climate change-related things, and when the batteries are recharged in a few weeks or months or a year, return to the Big Question and see how things shake out.
 Don’t read anything sinister between those lines. Neither I nor anyone in my life is sick; I’m simply going to experiment with restarting my woodworking business and finish the remodeling work on the house my wife and I bought recently, and, oh yeah, spend some more time gazing into the eyes of my college sweetheart.
 When I say “no one really knows how to fix it”, I’m not saying that no one thinks putting a price on carbon is a major part of the solution, or that vastly increasing the use of renewables and electric cars wouldn’t be excellent ideas, etc. Those things are trivially obvious. What’s elusive and maddeningly difficult is figuring out how we make those things happen in a country like the US where climate change denial still draws more votes than it loses in some places, and even many people who “are aware of climate change” think they can “fix it” by changing their light bulbs and driving a hybrid car. We are on the wrong end of ideological bias, information deficit, and plain old political corruption. But aside from that, everything is just peachy.
How people, whether individually or in groups of various sizes, respond to the most obvious threats of climate change — higher temperatures and humidity, floods and droughts, and perhaps most obviously, rising sea levels — is a topic as fascinating as it is important. But there are times when those responses can leapfrog right over unexpected straight into obstinate, self-destructive, and just plain weird. And so it is with some residents of the great state of North Carolina:
On N.C.’s Outer Banks, scary climate-change predictions prompt a change of forecast:
The dangers of climate change were revealed to Willo Kelly in a government conference room in the summer of 2011. By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher and her home on the Outer Banks would be swamped.
The state had detailed maps to illustrate this claim and was developing a Web site where people could check by street address to see if their property was doomed. There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”
So Kelly, a lobbyist for Realtors and home builders on the Outer Banks, resolved to prove the forecast wrong. And thus began one of the nation’s most notorious battles over climate change.
Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.
Environmentalists are appalled, and North Carolina has been lampooned as a hotbed of greedy developers trying to “outlaw” the rising tide. Some climate-change experts are sympathetic, however, calling the rebellion an understandable reaction to sea-level forecasts that are rapidly becoming both widely available and alarmingly precise.
As always, let me urge you to go read the whole piece and not rely on my excerpting.
As for what one might say about this…
I, for one, have zero sympathy for the people directly affected. While I can certainly understand their motivation — they don’t want to see their property value go to zero in a matter of years — when your response to a very difficult situation is to try to define it away, you’re nothing more or less than a myopic, greedy climate change denier.
But taking a step back from the details in this story, this is a perfect example of a situation I’ve been stressing for some time: One of the worst aspects of climate change impacts is that they invalidate the assumptions that underlie much of our physical infrastructure.
You want to put a thermoelectric (coal, natural gas, nuclear) power plant on this river, because there will always be enough water to cool it? Sounds great! Or at least it does until the water is so hot or there’s so little of it that you can’t operate the plant, and it has to shut down for days to weeks to months at a time, something we’ve seen happen repeatedly in various countries (including the US0 over the last decade.
Want to put a city of millions of people right on the coastline, where people can get a great view of the ocean from their house or condo or hotel room? Sounds great! Until sea level rise wipes out the whole community or forces you to spend immense amounts of money building sea walls.
There’s a lot of nice, flat land here — let’s use it for farms! As people in Bangladesh are just beginning to find out, when you have half the population of the US in a country the size of Iowa, as Heidi Cullen points out in her book The Weather of the Future, sea level rise can displace not just a lot of people but end a major portion of your food production.
Maybe it’s OK to limit ourselves to, say, drilling municipal water wells? Sure, until saltwater intrusion starts to poison the aquifers in places like the southeast US, causing us to abandon wells or install expensive treatment plants.
I’m sure people can find many other examples of this syndrome, of our own actions (pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as if it were an infinitely large, free sewer) triggering impacts that seemingly pull the rug out from under us. And all of this points to a fundamental issue with climate change that I think doesn’t get nearly enough attention: Many people who feel threatened by climate change impacts feel that it’s somehow “not fair”. Sure, they drive a big ol’ SUV and keep their air conditioning set at 70F all summer long and generally lead a carbon intensive lifestyle, but golly, they didn’t do anything to deserve losing their home or job or access to affordable food. There must be some way they can appeal this in a court of law, declare moral Chapter 11 bankruptcy, or take a page from American football and throw a coach’s challenge flag and have someone review the tape and overturn the situation. This is America, after all, where not only do we believe in and allow for second acts, despite what F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claimed, we think and act as if we were entitled to as many acts as we want to keep reinventing ourselves and escaping the consequences of our past actions. Sadly, the natural world is stunningly indifferent to our desires, a brutal reality that far too many of us have yet to appreciate fully.
If you’re one of My Readers, then surely you’ve seen the Doonesbury strip that ran in yesterday’s Sunday papers, the one that hammers home the absurdity of climate change deniers by comparing their response to very bad medical news to their view of climate change. If, by some bizarre turn of events you haven’t seen it, please hit the above link. I’ll wait.
Before I fulfill my promise and tell you why this strip isn’t helpful, let me make the obligatory (and, not coincidentally, true) statement that I absolutely love Gary Trudeau’s work in Doonesbury, and I’ve been a big fan is his for a long time. And when I read the strip in question Sunday morning over my kick-starter, industrial-strength cup o’ coffee and blueberry muffin, I practically cheered out loud.
But after pondering it a bit more, I think it highlights just how difficult it is to communicate across the chasm between climate realists and deniers.
First, the basic analogy Trudeau uses to illustrate the situation is more than reasonably accurate. That being said, it’s certainly not a new take on the issue; I’ve read/heard and used that same comparison dozens of times in recent years. Still, I was quite pleased to see it used in such a prominent platform, as I’m sure a lot of people who don’t follow the climate change issue obsessively, like the strange dude who owns this blog and most of his Dear Readers, haven’t heard the medical analogy before. I’d even go so far as to say some of them found it enlightening, and perhaps a few even (gasp!) had their world view altered. All positive stuff.
Second, the political right in the US is where things get, how shall I put this delicately, a smidge problematic. If Trudeau published a strip saying that chocolate ice cream was tasty, a significant portion of The Right would argue the point either by saying it’s less tasty than a list of other things they could name, or they would attack Trudeau for “appointing himself the sole arbiter of tastiness.” (Go ahead, tell me you can’t hear the Fox News faux debate in your head already on that point. I dare ya.)
OK, you might be saying, there are ideologues in this world for whom no idiocy in support of their cause is too far. There have always been such people, and there will never be any way of convincing them otherwise short of sitting back and watching them endure some personal tragedy, e.g. they’re staunchly pro-tobacco or pro-smokers’ rights until they or a loved one is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, then they have a sudden conversion.
The problem is that it’s so bloody easy for not the hard right but the people just a bit right of center to read that Doonesbury strip and then knee-jerk straight to: “It’s my body, so it’s no one’s business whether I smoke or drink or whatever. Those Commie Nazi Lefties and their Kenyan Muslim Socialist president should butt out of my life!” The Lefties would counter that it’s not just your life you’re playing Russian Roulette with for the sake of inhaling a toxic brew of carcinogens and chemicals, Mr. Smoker, but the lives of those around you — you know, that whole second-hand smoke thing — and your loved ones. If the medical and social impacts of smoking were somehow restricted to the person lighting up, I’d cheer them on. Let them smoke up a storm and die a lingering miserable death; we could write it off as a stupidity tax.
But we’re here to talk about climate change, not smoking. In climate change we have the ultimate example of a super wicked problem, a concept I dearly wish more people would learn about. I would add to the qualifications mentioned in the referenced link that climate change has temporally and spatially diffuse impacts. Someone buys a gargantuan SUV instead of a small hybrid or plug-in EV or full EV, so his transportation carbon footprint is much higher than necessary. The impacts of those extra tons of CO2 emitted over the lifetime of the vehicle are spread over the whole planet, largely hurting people the original and ensuing purchasers will never meet in places they’ll never live or visit or might not even be able to find on a map. Which makes it all the more difficult to convince people standing in a car dealer’s showroom to minimize their carbon footprint; you’re essentially begging them to rely on their compassion for strangers as the justification for more mindful consumption and restraining themselves.
And that’s the rub: Many on the political right have a lack of vision and/or compassion to make a more enlightened choice; they’re so wedded to the economic ideology that every economic actor (whether a person, corporation, religious institution, etc.) should be free to maximize its own utility with zero consideration for anything that doesn’t immediately impact them that they reject out of hand any suggestion that they do otherwise. And when they see something like the Doonesbury strip they don’t just reject it out of hand, but consider it proof that The Lefties are coming for their SUVs and their vacations halfway around the world and their guns, and we’re going to turn their kids gay and make abortion mandatory. So they dig in even deeper and they double down, yet again, on a catastrophically dangerous ideology.
Am I saying that people like Trudeau shouldn’t make efforts like the one in his strip from yesterday? Of course I’m not saying that. A few paragraphs above I said explicitly that I’m sure he reached some people with a new-to-them, and persuasive, argument. But I am saying that whenever any of us focuses on this pivotal issue of personal choice, we’re going to offset part of our gain by feeding the paranoia and addiction to confirmation bias among deniers and even some people not currently engaged with the topic.
 Do I really have to talk about the howling hypocrisy of this position that’s revealed when these same people start talking about abortion or retaining ridiculously stiff penalties for recreational drug use? No? Good. Thank you for paying attention.
 Speaking as someone who had his life pretty well derailed by watching my father die of smoking-related cancer when I was between the ages of 10 and 12, I can say with authority that some pretty devastating side effects of smoking don’t show up on chest X-rays.
“Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once.There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick — the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, from his essay “The Crack-Up”
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
– H. P. Lovecraft
Clive Hamilton, whose work is always worth reading and pondering, has written a must-read response to Andy Revkin on the notion that we can find a pleasant path forward through our climate change mess. Hamilton’s piece, The Delusion of the “Good Anthropocene”: Reply to Andrew Revkin, begins:
Thanks for sending the link to your talk on “Charting Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene”. Since you ask for responses let me express my view bluntly. In short, I think those who argue for the “good Anthropocene” are unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.
If we listen to what Earth system scientists, including climate scientists, are telling us, the warming of the Earth due to human causes is a slowly unfolding catastrophe. We already have 2.4°C of warming locked in and, even under the most optimistic mitigation scenarios, it will be very hard to avoid 4°C by the end of this century. According to those best placed to make projections, a world 4°C warmer would be a very different kind of planet, one unsympathetic to most forms of life, including human life. Apart from climatic change, other manifestations of human impact in the Anthropocene, from interference in the nitrogen cycle to plastics in the oceans, only add to the grim outlook.
The advocates of the “good Anthropocene” do not attempt to repudiate the mass of scientific evidence; instead they choose to reframe it. As you declare so disarmingly in your talk: “You can look at it and go ‘Oh my God’, or you can look at it and go ‘Wow, what an amazing time to be alive!’ I kind of choose the latter overall.” You are, of course, entitled to put on any kind of glasses you choose, including rose-coloured ones; but that does not change what you are looking at.
And ends (emphasis added via bolding):
It has been shown that humans can benefit from what psychologist Shelley Taylor calls “benign fictions”, unrealistic stories about ourselves and the world that lead us to predict what we would prefer to see, rather than what is objectively most likely to happen. Yet these healthy illusions that can spur us on against the odds can become dangerous delusions when they continue to be held despite evidence from the outside world telling us we must change course.
In the end, grasping at delusions like “the good Anthropocene” is a failure of courage, courage to face the facts. The power of positive thinking can’t turn malignant tumours into benign growths, and it can’t turn planetary overreach into endless lifestyle improvements. Declaring oneself to be an optimist is often used as a means of gaining the moral upper hand: “Things may look bad but, O ye of little faith, be bold and cheerful like me.”
Things are bad, and if we carry on as we are things will be very bad. It is the possibility of preventing bad turning into very bad that motivates many of us to work harder than ever. But pretending that bad can be turned into good with a large dose of positive thinking is, even more so than denying things are bad, a sure-fire way of ending up in a situation that is very bad indeed.
And, of course, you should take the time to go read it all, even though I think Hamilton was a bit kinder and more diplomatic than was warranted.
This is an issue that really hits home for me, at least tangentially, as I’ve been in numerous conversations over the years that involved people generally knowledgeable about climate change (even if they significantly underestimated how bad things are) telling others in our group that “we can’t tell newcomers how bad things are, or we’ll scare them away.” To say that I disagree vehemently, bordering on violently, with that view would be a laughable understatement. Yes, it certainly is possible to “scare people away” from taking action, but the solution is not to tell them partial truths, which in this case is indistinguishable from outright lying to them; the answer is to figure out how to communicate the unvarnished details and their ramifications in a way that engages and energizes them. The crushing, inescapable truth is that Hamilton’s basic assessment — it’s already bad with very bad dead ahead on our current path — is accurate, and we can’t mobilize anywhere near the level of political and economic action to effect the depth, breadth, and nature of change needed to avoid some horrifying outcomes unless people understand the fundamentals of this mess.
At its core, this is a problem of trying to educate and activate people to act in their own best interest, as well as that of their loved ones. But they don’t want to be bothered thanks to a perverse alloy of reasons, from our psychological and sociological inheritance to lies propagated by those promoting their short-term financial and ideological interests to nothing deeper than simple ignorance. It’s simply much easier to feed our confirmation bias addiction, avoid thinking about uncomfortable things, and continue mindlessly consuming and pursuing our individual short-term gains. To say that our current situation, over two centuries in the making and reaching a series of increasingly critical points, can be glossed over with happy thoughts about it being “an amazing time to be alive” is about the most destructive thing I can imagine.
I’m sure most people in this little virtual corner cafe are aware of the interview President Obama gave Thomas L. Friedman, published in the The New York Times, Obama on Obama on Climate. The juxtaposition of some of Obama’s comments with some just released results from a survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Communication are, to put it mildly, interesting.
From the Times piece:
For starters, Obama is aware that we can’t just keep burning oil, coal and gas until they run out. As the International Energy Agency warned, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” — unless carbon capture and storage technology is widely deployed — otherwise we’ll bust through the limit of a 2 degree Celsius rise in average temperature that climate scientists believe will unleash truly disruptive ice melt, sea level rise and weather extremes. The rest has to stay in the ground, and we need to steadily find cleaner alternatives and more energy efficiency. I asked Obama if he agreed with that analysis.
“Science is science,” he said. “And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”
Do I really have to add here that I wish Friedman had pressed President Obama about how aggressively we have to curtail our CO2 emissions to have even a ghost of a chance of remaining below 2C? Or even asked him what scientists are increasingly saying about 2C being the appropriate limit? No, that would be too obvious, and I would expect anyone who reads this blog to have a head of steam up about those points, and likely others, just as much as I do.
No, what prompts me to write is those survey results, which include the following table:
This table tells us that among American adults, 18% think “thousands” or “millions” of people die annually because of global warming, with another 20% saying similar numbers of people are injured or made ill. And looking ahead 50 years, 31% of people think that thousands to millions will die because of global warming, while 32% say that many people will become ill or injured.
So, how is there even a single climate change denier in elected office today? How can any candidate, anywhere in the US, so much as whisper that “the science isn’t in” or “there have always been cycles” or whatever other low-grade denialist balloon juice they’re peddling these days without being laughed off the campaign trail?
The answer, of course, is simply that even the people who intellectually grasp at least the fundamental feeds and speeds of the problem don’t care enough to do anything about it. I’m sure a great number of these people have children, so their view of the problem and their lack of action amount to no more or less than saying, “My kids will have to live through a bad horror movie for a good portion of their lives, but I don’t want to change anything to try to avoid that outcome.”
Can you think of anything more revelatory, more condemning of a broad population, than their consistently putting their own short-term gratification ahead of the well being of the world’s children, including their own? Perhaps we need a term for such willful indifference, something akin to The Good German. Given the shocking level of immorality, myopia, greed, and fanatical pursuit of personal gratification on display, I suggest we go with The Corporate American.
I’m already fielding e-mail from friends and people I know virtually about the EPA’s proposed CO2 reduction plan for electricity plants. While I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, mostly because it was released about a half hour ago, as I type this sentence, let me point out a few things:
The main EPA . . . → Read More: A few thoughts on the new EPA rules
I mentioned in a prior post (2C in our rear-view mirror, geoengineering dead ahead) that the IEA had tweeted out an astonishing statistic, namely that from 2005 to 2012 China had added 150MW of new coal-fired electricity generation every day. I mentioned in that post that I would leave calculating the CO2 emissions from those . . . → Read More: Calculation: The emissions from those new Chinese coal plants
Brad Plumer, a writer I sincerely hope you follow on Twitter, has a new piece up about the infamous 2C “safe” limit of global warming. This is an absolute must read piece, and I hope everyone reading this site who hasn’t read it already does so.
Brad’s article is: Two degrees: How the world failed on climate change. While I . . . → Read More: 2C in our rear-view mirror, geoengineering dead ahead
I’m sure many readers of this blog have seen the first movie in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, the 2009 film, Star Trek.
There is one scene early in that movie that captures our climate situation with almost painful on-the-nose accuracy. I’m referring, of course, to the scene where an adolescent Jim Kirk has . . . → Read More: We’re all James Tiberius Kirk in the carbon wind down
Given that the IPCC released their latest report last night (US time), the “AR5 WGII” report (available here as the SPM (Summary for Policy Makers) and the full report in sections), and it contains, to put it mildly, not exactly cheery news, I thought this gem from April 12, 2009 was particularly relevant, even if I . . . → Read More: From the archives: Planetary prognosis