I’ve been pondering something in the temporal crevasses between online and real-world activities for some time, and I’d like to present it here for discussion. What follows is in no way meant to be theoretical or rhetorical, or a leading way of making a point. This is an earnest inquiry about a point that has me dumbfounded.
Short version: All things considered, what is the point of climate activism?
Long version: Because we’re dealing with a lot of unknowns regarding climate change — what will the emissions levels from certain key countries be in coming years and decades, how close are we to various tipping points that could add a huge amount of CO2 and methane to the atmosphere, how quickly can we respond to having our climate epiphany about the urgency of our situation, etc. — I think it’s useful for each of us engaged on this topic to construct what I call the MLS, or most likely scenario. This begins with our best guess at all those uncertain factors, and adds some knowledge and further guesses as to how they’ll interact.
Yes, that’s a lot of guessing, and sometimes it can go wildly wrong. Remember all the talk in the US just five or six years ago about how the US was facing a disaster of our inability to get enough natural gas? The logic was that the amount we could produce domestically plus what we could import from Mexico and Canada via pipelines would be enough. We had only four or five of the special ports that could unload liquefied natural gas tankers, so we had no way to import an appreciable amount of natural gas from anywhere not reachable via pipeline. Needless to say, fracking changed that story in a hurry.
Examples like that don’t mean we should just sit back, let the Magical Marketplace do its thing and not even try to figure out where we’re going. But they do argue for caution and flexibility and recognizing that even in an economy the size the US’ things can sometimes change very quickly.
In short, my current MLS, being as objective as I can:
- Climate change is real, almost entirely man-made, and very serious, mostly because of the knock-on effects it triggers, like drought, floods, and sea level rise.
- The potential results of triggering one or more of the major feedbacks — release of methane hydrates or large quantities of CO2 and methane from melting permafrost — are terrifying. We don’t know exactly where those tipping points lie, but we can say with absolute certainty that continued warming brings us closer to them. We’re playing planetary Russian Roulette and letting our short-term winnings seduce us into pulling the trigger again and again.
- Globally, we are headed in the wrong direction, emissions-wise, and actually accelerating.
- The three most important nations in terms of CO2 emissions, China, India, and the US, aren’t doing anywhere near enough to reduce those emissions, and they show no real signs of leaping into action within the next several years, at a bare minimum.
- A significant portion of the lack of response in the US is due to our horribly broken political system. If you have enough money you can basically buy puppet politicians by running enough ads to get voters to vote against their own interests. The odds of this changing within the lifetime of anyone reading this is approximately zero.
- A high percentage of the environmentalists in the US don’t begin to see how urgent our climate change situation truly is. They continue to push those not currently engaged with the topic to change their light bulbs and buy a Prius. I’m convinced that such lukewarm activism is actually very counterproductive because it lets people think they’re “doing their part” and then quit. If you get people to take those first steps and then ramp up their involvement including (dare I say it) being more informed voters, then we’re getting somewhere and the light bulb thing is clearly a good start. But as long as we have people driving their room-size SUVs to drop off cans at a fundraising recycling drive and congratulating themselves for “being green”, we’re not accomplishing precisely nothing.
- The hope for a “Pearl Harbor Event” that somehow wakes us up without causing too much human suffering is a pipe dream. Any such event will have to be prolonged and very painful, as in several straight years of crop failures in the major grain producing countries. Too many of us have so embraced a myopic and greedy world view that we have effectively become a species that only responds en masse to pain stimuli. No amount of talking or writing will change that — such efforts are seen by too many people as yet more hot air from yet another special interest group, especially in hyper-polarized arenas like the US. Similarly, some of the coming events, like the atmospheric level of CO2 hitting 400ppm or the entire Arctic ice cap briefly melting, are mentioned by some environmentalists as the inevitable wake-up event; this is naivete at its worst. Those events would barely get mentioned by the mainstream media, and they wouldn’t move the needle on the public discussion at all.
So, now that I’ve thoroughly depressed everyone reading this, let me ask again: What is the point of climate activism?
Is it nothing more than keeping the troops assembled and ready to leap into action when the rest of the population suddenly pulls their heads out of the sand and says, “Hey, wait a minute! That global warming stuff really is a problem! Why didn’t someone tell me???” As much as I hate to say it, I think this pretty well sums up what we’re doing. I sometimes feel like a volunteer public health worker who tries to get people to stop driving under the influence of alcohol, and winds up instead training more emergency medical personnel to deal with the endless series of crashes caused by drink drivers.
If anyone here has an argument with my most likely scenario, please say so in the comments, especially if you think I’m being too pessimistic. If you think I have it more or less right, but I’m reaching the wrong conclusion about environmental activism, then please say that, too, as this is yet another time when I find myself wishing desperately to be wrong.
 For example, one of the most frustrating things I hear constantly from people who should know better is this nonsense that “peak oil is a good thing because it will force us to emit less CO2″. That view displays a stunning lack of understanding of how economies, which is to say incentives and resource allocations, work. If oil becomes “too expensive” then countries with large coal reserves and high motor fuel consumption (like the US) will simply start converting coal into diesel fuel, at a higher carbon footprint than petroleum-based fuels.