Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

On the role of climate activism

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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.

12 comments to On the role of climate activism

  • Some European

    You’re basically right. We’re totally rearranging the deck chairs.

    Still, there’s some wiggle room, in the hopeful direction:

    -Recent media coverage has been… good! I’ve seen some amazing journalism. An article in a mainstream outlet in Europe said: “The most optimistic projections … assume 4ºC of warming by the end of the century, the more realistic ones see it happen by 2060-2070. In that scenario, a third of the current inhabitable land would turn to desert and about all major coastal cities would disappear.”
    Just when you thought, journalists would never dare to write stuff like that…
    Even the FoxNews website published some good articles, recently. Same thing with a major Spanish paper from the parallel universe.
    Hard to tell whether it’s just the heat.
    -Rmoney is giving away the presidency, not that Obama would dare to take advantage of that…
    -BP is in trouble after the spill and now a lawsuit in Russia. They’ve had to pay many billions in fines.
    -Also, upcoming polar drilling will almost certainly lead to some major environmental catastrophe.
    -El Niño is coming (let’s pray we don’t get a big volcano just now)
    -Solar and wind are quickly becoming competitive. In the end, the opportunist capitalists might save the day. (This is my bet.)

    Big unknowns in the equation:
    -You never know which meme can destroy a decade of careful opinion building.

    Pay attention to:
    -WUWT will make a major announcement on Sunday
    -A climate hawk I know is digging into the IPCC, he says there’s some important denier infiltration. Given the infinite resources and psychopathic evil of the Kochroaches et al, it’s likely their recent relative silence is hiding some plans for AR5 or Qatar or something else.

    Black swans on a foggy winter night. You can’t see them, but you know they’re there.

  • Joan Savage

    The simplest reason I can offer to be active is that it alleviates some of the wretched loneliness that comes of sensing how bad things really are.

    That said, there are smart effective strategic courses of action, and then there are others that are stupidly dangerous and counterproductive. (I’m leaving out the countless examples.)

    In conversation that involved you on the Climate Progress blog months ago, you had some useful things to say about boycotts. Discernment like that about outcome is essential.

  • vigiliush

    I share in the sense of futility. I have pushed AGW links and commentary on my daughters, my neigbors and on my old high school buddy that still emails me, have tried to engage them, at least engage somebody. I have the solar panels coming next week, and just had the super-duper new insulation & new environmental control system put in. Bought a killawatt. OTOH my congressman is not only a global warming denier he is even a DDT denier. (Steve Scalise of Louisiana, not a chance in hell of unseating him.)

    And then just go to “Reason” mag, just go to read the comments on this post:
    Obviously no point in even trying to “reason” with that crowd.

    Yeah, yeah, I have been in the “climate pearl harbor” crowd. OTOH these kind of people will never admit they were wrong, will have new rationalizations, will pivot and blame “the liberals” for climate change, and by the time it really becomes that obvious to everybody we’ll be in for large calamities and population die-off.

    But still I say what I can when I can to anybody that has any reason to listen.

  • Peter

    The Public still remains in a state of consumption based SUV mindless inertia. Climate change seems like something in 2150- and by then we should have the technology to deal with it. I have friends with graduate degrees and they call me ‘obsessive’ on the issue. They become exasperated with me if I talk about the perils we face as a civilization. Almost all I have interacted with do not even understand the meaning of getting back to ’350ppm’ C02. I had one highly educated friend ask me ‘if C02 should be rising at all!’

    The recent hellish weather in the mid west & great plains, the ‘Derecho’ events in Washington DC and New York have been ‘helpful’ in spite of the horrors they have created. The public is now hearing more information that connects the dots to extreme weather events and human activity. In my opinion the vast majority of the public still does not have the foggiest idea what ‘exactly’ is going on.

    The drought this summer will have to become an ongoing event- (and it might, to varying degrees) Extreme weather, with loss of life and property will have to become an increasing fixture in the News (likely by the late 2020s, perhaps earlier. We are headed for at least 3 degrees of warming by mid century on the path we are on now. I do not see any real attempt to peak our emissions for at least 20 years- which will make 3 degrees a tough goal to see. Does the American public have any idea what 2 degrees C above the PI will mean to them? 3 degrees? 4 degrees? Americans are going to be hit in the face with powerful natural forces they will not fully understand until it is far too late.

  • wili

    Many good points, Peter (and of course, Lou).

    To address your last questions, I have started to hand out Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees” to about anyone who will take it. If nothing else, perhaps siblings and friends will be a tad more understanding of my ‘odd’ behaviors–refusal to fly or take any other ff-powered long-distance trips, (mostly) not meat eating…

    I find the hardest thing psychologically is when otherwise smart, caring people just don’t seem to have much of a clue at all about the deep mess we are in. If I can’t get through to these folks, what is the chance of reaching the rabid masses?

    This an important question, lou, one I struggle with almost daily. I don’t have answers, but I certainly don’t think you are overstating anything here.

    I agree with you about ‘Pearl Harbor’ moments alone not being anything we can pin our hopes on.

    It seems to me that we have to keep memes circulating in the noosphere that will:

    –help explain extreme events when they happen (and they will),
    –put them in a broader context, and
    –give people an idea of how to respond

    This is the only chance that any event will be properly interpreted by a good size number of people who might then demand meaningful change of themselves, of their neighbors, and of their governments and institutions.

    I would like to think that if people really knew what was at stake, there would be a kind of revulsion at the use of ff (better–death fuels or mass extinction fuels), and a spontaneous Swadeshi-like movement to withhold money from those who dig (and pump) them out of the ground by simply not using them (or only using them to the very minimum possible.

    But I see not the remotest twinkling of such a movement sparking up pretty much anywhere. Of others do, please inform.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – since you ask for rebuttal of the scenarios you outline, here are a few points.

    First, international inaction is neither a symptom of the nations’ disinterest nor of crude corruption. Deciding who will have what emission rights under the mutually recognized necessary global carbon budget is just as much a resource contest as was the scramble for Africa in C19. It defines who will buy in permits how soon and from whom, and thus whose economy will pay more for its fossil energy over several decades. Obama’s Copenhagen ‘Deal’, where each American would still have about three times the emissions rights of each Chinese in 2050, was the first public expression of this calculus. Yet it was clearly designed to be rejected, implying that the US sees its relative negotiating strength as increasing, or wishes to imply that belief.

    The Chinese hardball response to the ongoing Bush policy of a brinkmanship of inaction – in the form of a GW /month of new coal power fueling a GDP that would allow its economy to exceed the US by 2018 – is matched by remarkably explicit warnings to its citizens of the coming stresses of climate impacts – The government has to know its vulnerability to global food insecurity triggering internal political unrest.

    In the US those same stresses are growing, but are studiously ignored/vigorously denied by the two party state. To reduce the risk of citizens waking up and demanding immediate global action Obama is at pains to describe events such as Colorado Springs as ‘natural disasters.’

    Whether the US is waiting for climate events to weaken China’s will to continue rejecting some version of the Copenhagen deal, or whether it awaits the climatic destabilization and overthrow of China’s govt, rather depends on the US establishment’s confidence in America’s abilities to weather the coming climate impacts. I suspect that there has been massive overconfidence in this regard, as the possibility of regime change in Beijing, and the end if its threat to US global dominance, is a highly seductive objective.

    A critical factor in US polity is the backstop option once the contest with China is settled. In 1996 Cheyney, as former SoD for Bush senior, was well acquainted with Edward Teller, whose stock was very high following the successful policy agin the USSR of “push them up an arms race until they go bust.” In that year Teller produced and promoted a seminal paper on the use of sulphate geo-engineering as a backstop option – “should it become necessary to control global warming.” It is notable that advancing this option is now in the remit of the ‘Bipartisan Policy Council’, who’s chair has stated explicitly that it is seen by members as an adjunct to global emissions control, once that is agreed.

    If the imperatives of international power rivalries are incorporated into the climate issue, then three possible basic outcomes are indicated.

    First, that US policy will succeed in breaking Beijing as it did Moscow, whereupon emissions constraint will be agreed globally on US terms and Geo-E deployed to try to halt the self-fuelling feedbacks. This would be a massive volte-face and potentially political gold dust for the president implementing it. Yet its efficacy in global operation is highly questionable, as imposed solutions rarely endure against inherent national sentiments.

    Second, that Beijing neither collapses nor cedes a treaty on US terms, but continues its path to completely eclipsing US global dominance. The normal, traditional response of fading empires (since aeons before the British and Hapsburg empires tried it) has been to resort to war to try to maintain their dominance.

    Third, that activists cease buggering about with the diversions set up for them – of AGW denial, of shallow defeatism, of brightside advocacy, of renewable techs’ free market growth, of luke-warmer lightbulbs, etc, and join with blunt-spoken scientists in stirring the 70% of US citizens who say they want action to instead adamantly demanding very specific action by the president. At present there is no such set of specific demands assembled for public promotion, but it can be seen to require three components to be commensurate with our circumstances:

    - a global program for the development of effective means of albedo restoration on a scale to halt the advance of the feedbacks and end the ongoing destabilization of the climate, without imposing untenable side effects;

    - a global program of afforestation optimised for carbon sequestration to restore the PI atmosphere by 2100, avoiding the diversion of farmland and the use of exotic species, and maximizing the carbon’s utility and value by small-scale processing to ‘biochar’, with coproduct liquid fuels;
    (such a program would potentially allow nations a verifiable means of recovering their historical emissions over an agreed period, thereby removing a key log from the logjam of negotiations);

    - a global emissions control treaty, whereby nations’ emissions rights contract under an agreed carbon budget to near zero by an agreed date, and converge from present national levels to international per capita parity by an agreed date;
    (this framework is known as Contraction & Convergence [C&C] and forms the basis of the negotiating stance of govts representing over half the world population, including Africa, Europe, India, Australia, China and most of South America, etc).

    Just assembling such a set of demands is no small task if the ‘lowest common denominator’ swamp is to be avoided. Promoting them to the US public is a really major campaign – but it has the force of necessity behind it and peoples’ growing fear of the elemental forces now being unleashed pulling it forward.

    It seems to me that going to ordinary people and saying “Join us in demanding of your senators that they do something about global warming” is almost as incompetent as calling for public support on any of the diversionary issues listed above. – As yet we lack the world class oratory of a Ghandi or a Rev. King, and as yet we lack the degree of press support they enjoyed, and as yet we lack the very clear simple set of demands they applied. The latter we can address without any more years of delay, while working on the other two.

    So Lou, my MLO rather differs to yours in that the nearest I can define it is as some variation on one of three basic routes, but I can strongly confirm the potential relevance of activists in joining with scientists in turning the society around. Indeed, I see nobody else with the potential to do so. But to do that, activists have to consider the issue globally and recognize the US role and motivations globally, if they’re to avoid being side tracked into utterly deficient nationalist outlooks of “doing our little bit – why don’t other nations do theirs.”

    All the best,



  • Lewis – great contribution, thanks!

    A couple of minor thoughts on Lou’s post:
    • “The three most important nations in terms of CO2 emissions” – Emissions, yes, though extraction is another factor. Top six extractor nations are (in order): China, USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada.

    • “The odds of this changing within the lifetime of anyone reading this is approximately zero.”
    While political sclerosis can seem impossibly entrenched, I do take heart that we have some historical evidence of cultural tipping points, where a minority position becomes the majority in a relatively short space of time and shifts the political equations dramatically. Of course, there are all kinds of reasons that make that more difficult in this case than in many historical analogies, but I wouldn’t put the chances quite at zero. Low, but non-zero.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Byron – thanks for your kind response to my meanderings through somewhat underpopulated conceptual terrain.

    On the matter of the possibility of systemic political change in USA – what Gorbachev described as ‘perestroika’ – I’m reminded of a charming Russian I met while traveling in Central America many years ago. He was an author of fiction, and told me sadly how what he knew was his best work, a story around the collapse of the Soviet Union, had been turned down by every publisher he tried. That had been in 1985, and within a few years the Soviet Union was gone. And the reason the manuscript had been repeatedly rejected was that, before it happened, the idea of the USSR’s collapse was just implausible, unthinkable, far-fetched . . .

    The concept of embrittlement is relevant here. As you may know, technically its what happens to some metals when bathed in nuclear radiation – but I surmise there’s a parallel politically in that regimes which tolerate increasingly brazen corruption against the common good, while failing to ensure basic welfare and the self esteem of employment, health care etc, are weakening the very fabric of the social structure that supports their authority and the constitution that legitimates them.

    Depending on the degree of embrittlement and the stress loading at the time, a crumbling could be from gradual to almost instantaneous, as in Russia; but once social cohesion and loss of faith in the system decay substantially, perestroika becomes inevitable.

    And given the examples of the outcomes of the Weimar Republic, of the menshevics in Moscow in 1916, etc, those in the US looking to raise up democracy really could do with preparing capacities and strategies to steer the changes to a safe harbour, rather than stepping aside and letting alienation and bitterness generate a new tyranny.



  • adelady

    I think in terms of a wake up call or a change of mind there are 2 good examples. The first is the collapse of the USSR that Lewis refers to. Secondly, I give you the example of deodorants. Almost unheard of in the mid 50s. Enthusiastically taken up by women when first generally available. Compulsory for everyone in less than a decade.

    And if you want (what a word) a war analogy, I fear it won’t be an OMG Pearl Harbour single moment. It will be much more the realisation that our Sudetenland moment has already passed.

    And dealing with it from that point on will be very much like the progress of WW2. Several places in the frontline. Several countries or groups (like the Commonwealth) getting involved ‘early’. Several years of rationing, misery and violence in parts of the world until the big guys, as with the US in WW2, finally get in on the act.

    But it won’t stop the climate ‘equivalent’ of 20 million Russians being sacrificed to finally get the job done. The numbers, the years required and the casualties will be much, much worse than WW2.

    We’re really in the position of our forebears a century ago. Many people ‘knew’ that things were going bad in 1913. None of them foresaw 2 world wars, a worldwide flu plague, the Great Depression, the Holocaust or nuclear war – let alone all of them – in the coming 40 years. We just have the advantage, if you want to call it that, of being a bit clearer about what’s in store for us in terms of climate.

  • Toby

    I agree with adelady. There will not be a Pearl Harbour moment.

    But when exactly did it become socially unacceptable to smoke indoors? When did it become aceptable for governments to regulate second-hand smoking, even against the propaganda power of Big Tobacco and its hired-gun scientists? There was no “defining moment” – you could probably define the “before” and “after” but not the moment. But I would bet that an awaful lot of people saw their friends or loved ones die agonisingly from lung cancer first.

    Simlarly, in the 19th century why did governments and municiple authorities suddenly begin investing enormous amounts of momey into gigantic sewage schemes, even against the will of “taxpayers” who protested the cost? It was because medical science ha stuttered along to the point where it was realised that all the cr*p accumulated in expanding cities during the Industrial Revolution was seriously detrimental to public health. How many cholera epidemics did it take before understanding dawned?

    So it may take a while, and there will be suffering and defeats along the way. But it is not a fight that will be won by D-Day, a Stalingrad or a Civil Rights Act. It is a war of attrition. The Founding Fathers of the US believed that if truth and falsehood engaged in a fair fight, the truth would inevitably win.

    Ok, it is not a fair fight, falsehood has access to the power and money of the elites. But as long as there are outlets for the truth, and scientists willing to provide the evidence, there is hope. And there is also the inevitable “in-your-face” evidence like droughts and disasters that cannot be explained away by talking heads on Fox News. The effect of those will be cumulative.

    So in a war of attrition all you can do is keep doing what you always did, change what did not work, focus on what worked better, and keep on keeping on. The breakthrough will come slowly, after much damage, but it will come – too late for many in the impoverished world, I am afraid, but that cannot be helped.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Toby – there’s some significant difference between this and previous major campaigns for the commons good :
    - that of the cumulative nature of the threat;
    - the fact that addressing it by the necessary termination of net GHG outputs roughly doubles the problematic warming (by ending our maintenance of the cooling ‘sulphate parasol’);
    - the self-reinforcing nature of the threat, in that warming feedback loops are accelerating and have the potential to dwarf our emissions;
    -and the fact that a fading empire sees the climatic destabilization of its rival rising power as the best means of maintaining its global dominance.

    This is not in any way to differ with your prognosis that it’s a long campaign with which we must persevere,
    but to point to the fact that we need to raise our game in terms of targetting our pressure for change more effectively,
    and the longer that we take to do so the greater the global losses and the less our chances of success in keeping ahead of the rising impacts.